Lise Sarfati—Photo District News

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Breakout Fine-Art Series of the Year: Lise Sarfati’s On Hollywood

Lise Sarfati's photographs of women who moved to Hollywood to pursue fame and glory only to struggle struck a chord with both fine-art and mainstream audiences this year.

Understanding how and why certain photographers and certain bodies of work manage to stick in our collective consciousness is a challenge in today’s what’s-next culture. Photographers now have more ways to get their work seen, but it’s also harder than ever to know what kind of exposure is most likely to help them achieve their goals. So what makes a photographer’s style or a body of work stick in people’s minds? How does their audience grow and expand? How does an idea in the head of a photographer spawn ideas in the heads of viewers and, eventually, make a mark on the medium?

In an effort to answer these questions we looked at six photographers and projects that seemed to be on everyone’s mind this year, and considered how and why. We also spoke with a handful of people—from editors to curators to branding experts—to find out how they discovered the projects they’ve championed. Below, we speak with Lise Sarfati about her series "On Hollywood."

Women who seem to be in varying states of psychic distress or emotional detachment appear marooned on the streets and corners of Los Angeles. They gaze into the distance or numbly at the ground, caught in a brown study. These women—and they are unmistakably women, remnants of faded youth notwithstanding—are invariably alone in the frame, fragile and ethereal against the dingy underbelly of the City of Dreams. This is Lise Sarfati’s “On Hollywood.”

Leave it to the French to tell Americans about America. Like a feminist Tocqueville, Sarfati has spent years traveling the United States, using her camera to whittle away at the space between the myth and reality of American life. “On Hollywood” was created between 2009 and 2010 on the heels of Sarfati’s 2009 series, “Austin, Texas,” and as the latest in a succession of projects on America dating back to 2003’s “The New Life,” a photographic study of American youth on the cusp of adulthood.

“‘On Hollywood’ is a series based on the American landscape,” Sarfati says. “I was fascinated by the young women coming from the little provincial towns to project themselves in the fantasized landscape of Hollywood. I decided to work on the landscape and on the subjectivity of the feminine characters in the geographic space of the streets of Hollywood.

“I very carefully chose my characters,” Sarfati adds. “They were on the edge, in a sort of seductive disequilibrium. They want to live intensively. I photograph them very quickly to preserve their emotions. A lot of them identify themselves with images, which creates more ambiguity in their personalities.”

Sarfati dismisses attempts to draw her into a discussion about the success of her work, or the critical response. She convincingly begs ignorance of these topics, sloughing off questions about marketing and industry politics in favor of delving more deeply into the art itself. “I never focus on the impact of my work. I work mostly on the construction of the series, the sequence, the prints and the installations of the shows … as soon as I complete the work, it is something which does not belong to me anymore. I am photographing in a certain way to include the viewer with her or his life and her or his emotion. I hope my photographs act like mirrors.”

Rose Shoshana’s RoseGallery in Los Angeles premiered the series domestically in February 2012. Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City showed the work in September and October.

Publications ranging from The New York Times and TIME to Le Journal de la Photographie and The New Yorker have been discussing, showing and applauding “On Hollywood.”

Although Sarfati’s previous work has earned her accolades, including awards, international exhibitions, membership in Magnum Photos and book publications with Twin Palms Publishers, among others, “On Hollywood” has raised the high watermark of an already noteworthy career. Reached about her new work, Sarfati’s galleries were both enlightening and effusive. In accounting for the project’s cultural impact, Shoshana invokes Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, in which he “captured the intensity of young women coming to Hollywood to remake themselves and reach for fame and glory.

“It is the quintessential American Dream,” Shoshanna explains. “The dreams of ‘making it’ are so very engrossing and young women are especially vulnerable to this as it is a way out of what may be a troubled past, family discordance, dead-end jobs. They come to Hollywood in search of fame and most of them, unfortunately, end up on Hollywood Boulevard offering what they have: youth, beauty, sex.”

“That her project was printed from the last rolls of Kodachrome 64 film to be processed was exciting in itself,” adds Milo, who has shown Sarfati’s work since 2005. “But to see the extraordinary quality of the prints and her complex treatment of the subject matter, it was clear that she had brought her work to a new level.”

The discussion of “On Hollywood” has seemed to focus, like Sarfati’s lens, on the women in the portraits and their presumed relationship with the idea of “Hollywood.” But much of what stands out is Sarfati’s appropriation of Los Angeles’s physical spaces for her own purposes. Here is Hollywood at street level, grubby doorways and muted colors, cheap motels and rusty chain-link fences, Mike Davis’s City Of Quartz turned on its ear. Her keen explorations of women’s inner lives and outward circumstances call to mind the subtly biting social commentary of Jane Austen, sun-drenched Southern California re-imaged in chromogenic color.

Text courtesy of Photo District News