Although her subjects are mostly adolescent girls and other growing things, the square format of Sarah Jones' sumptuous, large-scale colour photographs printed on aluminium endows them with a pervasive sense of chilly symmetry. In her new works, as in her earlier ones, it also makes her compositions even more static, frustrating any inclination to compare them with film stills or to weave a narrative around her carefully staged scenes. This time around, Jones shot most of the photographs outdoors in a dusky gloom, rather than in fussy, well-lit, upper-middle-class interiors. The images are still rigorously framed, richly coloured and tonally sensitive, but the models seem somewhat less passive and more emotionally engaged. In The Pond/London II (Scarlett) (all works 2002), for example, a girl walks determinedly through marshland in front of dark hills and a glowering sky, as though on a mysterious quest.
Through casting sessions Jones selected a group of girls who live in the same area of London and worked with them for nearly a year. Some are more idiosyncratic, even striking, than the models she has used in the past. The small girl in The Gardens/London II (Anna), for example, looks uncannily adult; she looks directly at the camera with an almost defiant expression, her hand on her hip. Lucy Ann in The Nature Park/London II (Lucy Ann) is another: her hair severely pulled back to reveal prominent ears, she sits cross-legged in a clearing, holding a stick across her knees. Her rigid posture and angular limbs belie the stereotype that adolescent girls all reveal some incipient feral grace, and her alert expression suggests a wary intelligence.
In the most unsettling work in the group, The Bedroom I (Sarah), a dark-haired girl lies on the edge of a pink bed as if alongside a cotton-candy precipice. The bed is practically crammed into a corner of the room, which has bare shell-pink walls and is carpeted in rose. Sarah's cramped posture, her distinctly uncomfortable expression and her gaze, which is directed at a point where the floor meets the wall, generate an emotional undertow that is surprising given the photo's cool stylization. How, one wonders, can this reticent, nearly minimal image - in which the model seems almost to have been inserted between slabs of colour - suggest the possibility of such acute misery? The Bedroom II (Rhea) is perhaps a pendant to The Bedroom I (Sarah), but the colour scheme is blue rather than pink, and the model, who sits on the edge of a bed, throws her head upward as if in an approximation of rapture; an open window behind her may offer an uneasy promise of escape, or a veiled threat. The stubborn obliqueness of these two images is a welcome antidote to the rampant fantasizing in The Virgin Suicides (1993), Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about self-destructive sisters sequestered in similar, albeit more cluttered, pastel bedrooms.
Gardens and trees have appeared in Jones' work before and here provide a moody, almost ubiquitous, setting. She shot several images in a London park, including the one depicting large-eared Lucy Ann and another entitled The Nature Park/London I (Carter), in which a girl lying in a woodchip-strewn clearing with her eyes closed stretches her hand out toward the viewer like a prone figure in a history painting. Jones seems to be testing the damaging, age-old equation of women with nature, and, like other female photographers of her generation, she does so gingerly - the studied artificiality of the park images, for example, contrasts sharply with the lush naturalism in Sally Mann's photographs of her young daughters frolicking with fierce abandon in untamed Virginia landscapes. In a way, however, the impulse is similar to Mann's, in that both artists shatter the Ophelia paradigm, courting danger while carefully guarding the girls' subjectivity. The greatest difference seems not so much to be the element of irony or parody in Jones' work as her self-conscious deployment of her models as abstract ingredients. When these rigorously controlled images speak, they often do so through the unexpectedly powerful flicker of an adolescent girl's euphoria, curiosity or discomfort.
The creeping emotionalism in these ten new works seems to mark a fruitful development in Jones' work - one hopes she may be poised for a (just slightly) more dramatic shift. The expressiveness she is able to coax from mute subjects is especially evident in several images that are devoid of human presence, including the sombre, almost painterly The Birch Tree/London I, which depicts a tree just as it might be perceived by a sensitive teenager.
First published in Issue 68