There’s something about Sarah Jones’ photography series “Francis Place” that is creepy. In the photos, dully titled “The Sitting Room” or “The Dining Room,” teen girls sit in domestic interiors. Sometimes they stare off into the distance, in others one may stare at the camera. They flip their hair or hunch over in their chairs. Jones did a series prior titled “Mulberry Place” in which the girls are placed in dimly lit garden and outdoor settings, but the blank faces were just the same. Their boredom is palpable.
I’m reminded of Kara Jesella’s “Feminist Boredom” blogging and the works of Patrice Petro she has quoted on her Tumblr. “An aesthetics of boredom retains the modernist impulse of provocation and calculated assault,” writes Petro in Aftershocks of The New: Feminism and Film History. And again, in relation to coldness, Petro says: “Coldness, like cynicism and like boredom, involves a mode of anticipation and reservation, a mode of being present and yet not being there at all.”
Why are these girls in these spaces? Nothing about them indicates a teenage girl has lived in them. Sarah Jones likes to sit her adolescent subjects around waxed wooden tables, fixed among porcelain trinkets and bowls. In a way, these dining room scenes are subtly objectifying compositions. To position these girls among non-functional items and interiors is to almost suggest the same of them. But should they even have a function in these photos? I’m expecting something from them and only receive coldness. Their boredom is unsettling to me and I must know why they are bored.
The aesthetics and middle-class interiors of Sarah Jones’ photography also reminds me of one of my favorite short films that came out in 2001, The Architecture of Reassurance. Directed by Mike Mills the movie follows Alice, neglected by her family and bored by her surroundings, as she runs through her “Wonderland,” which is just a cookie-cutter American cul-de-sac. At one point, in a fantasy, Alice does a loud jig on the dining room table while her mother ignores her, flipping through a magazine with a glass of wine in hand. In another scene, Alice peers into a window at what appears to be a mom complimenting her teenage daughters’ clothing choices. But the camera cuts to the interior and the duo is actually arguing angrily. No matter how nice a house is, it doesn’t mean the family inside is nice.
Whereas Mike Mills’ Alice tries to dismantle her boredom by seeking the outside world of her own, mundane interiors, Jones’ subjects can’t escape theirs. They appear to be stuck there, often kneeling under wooden tables or flipping their hair in apparent exasperation. The only interaction the girls in Sarah Jones’ photos get is with you, the spectator. “There’s a sense of the uncanny in those rooms and the figures are both comfortable and ill at ease,” Sarah Jones told Frieze of the series. “They’re at a point of change; their adolescence.”
In 2002, Lauren Greenfield released her famous photo book Girl Culture. A documentary photographer and filmmaker whose form has always been rooted in female sociology and beauty standards, the book is a visual catalogue of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s lives of teenage girls. Greenfield’s collection, still eerily timely in its frank, saturated photos of fat camp attendees and glossy-lipped pretty girl trios, was less a glimpse at girl boredom than it was a calculated framing of girl trouble.
Where there isn’t ennui there is stress, stress on the scale, in the dressing rooms, in front of the mirror. Could the girls of Greenfield’s pages even sit still? I think they’d much rather shop. And even then, there’s a boredom that comes with such materialism. The fact that you can anticipate with each page turn what Greenfield’s subject might be doing is a message on part of the photographer addressing the banality of the expected girlhood performance. What is a girl to do???
All of these works place teen girl stress and boredom within a domestic and materialist context, but Sarah Jones’ work gives the least bite. What makes her photos in this series so eerie is how little is said, how little indication is given for the girls’ purpose in these settings. But when I step back and wonder why I need more reasoning, I realize just how provoking the bored face of a teen girl is.