Photographer Lise Sarfati’s monograph Oh Man consists of just 17 large format images, and the first three of them are of the same run-down street-corner. But these deceptively simple compositions make up a sequence that individually and collectively tell rich, evocative stories.

The French photographer has a wide-ranging c.v.; she studied Russian Masters at the Sorbonne and lived in the Soviet Union for 10 years before moving to California in 2003. In the 2010 series On Hollywood, she made portraits of young women who had come to the city in search of fame and fortune but didn’t quite make it. It sounds like the stuff of dozens of exploitation movies, but Sarfati’s camera doesn’t merely weave a sordid tale of the big city. She doesn’t exactly tell a story at all; she invites you into her subject’s worlds just enough to intrigue you but leaves the details tantalizingly unclear.

As in that 2010 work, Oh Man presents the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles. But this time she focuses on men, often passing the weather-beaten shutters of Skid Row storefronts. The book is close to the size of a record album, but a little taller than it is wide. That scale – and the volume’s slimness – suggests a storybook; but the particulars of the story are left oblique, which is what makes the images so fascinating.

The three images that open the book establish Sarfati’s ambiguous narrative. The photos were all made from the same vantage point of an old post office, its architecture echoing Doric stately columns but streamlined for a less elegant stone structure that is falling into disrepair if not ruin on the corner of this inner-city Acropolis. An African-American man wearing a New Orleans Saints t-shirt approaches the corner, holding a can of beer and looking up the street as if in anticipation.

The middle frame of this sequence shows the same angle of the post office, now looking abandoned, nobody in sight, but in the next image the man reappears; it looks like he’s walked past the post office but turned the corner to look back – for a missed rendezvous? Because he heard someone call his name? In the high sun (Sarfati manages to build a strange tension out of full sunlight), his short shadow points in the direction from where he came, as if leading him down some sinister fate.

The sequence is quietly cinematic, and it’s no surprise to learn that Sarfati is influenced by cinema, specifically Robert Bresson and Jean Eustache. Her work combines Bresson’s starkness with Eustache’s patient observation – after all, the latter’s most famous film is the nearly four-hour La Maman et la Putain. Sarfati sets up her tripod and makes these images in long shot, at a respectful distance from subjects who seem as broken as the decaying buildings that surround them. Each image features no more than one figure, as if portraying the last man on earth.

Accompanying text by David Campany, a writer-curator who assembled marked-up press photos for the terrific Gasoline, is perhaps too literal; it’s best not to try to explain Sarfati’s mystery. In fact, it may be best not to read this review. In terms of numbers, Oh Man may seem like but a light course of photographs, but each bite is packed with plenty of food for thought.

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