New York

Alessandra Sanguinetti

Photographs of children tend to evoke a knee-jerk wistfulness. As evidence of a moment that has always already passed, a photograph is perfectly suited to capture the fleeting presence of a child, in the process transforming the unsuspecting subject into a bittersweet symbol of soon-to-be-lost innocence. Thankfully, however, the visitor to Alessandra Sanguinetti’s recent US solo debut will find this phenomenon overshadowed by more nuanced considerations.

Selections from Sanguinetti’s five-year project of documenting the adventures of two young Argentinian cousins, these photographs attest to the girls’ sisterly adoration, an obviously fulfilling friendship that is also visually arresting, since the girls’ physiques happen to be vastly mismatched: Guille is as roly-poly as Belinda is bony. In these scenes of their everyday life in the rough Argentinian countryside and the various fantasies and myths that they act out together, Guille gravitates toward a motherly role while Belinda acts the clown. Guille grooms her friend and adjusts her costume, shows a fondness for flowers—in her hair, in her mouth, hiding her face—and offers her ample thigh as a pillow for Belinda, who mugs outrageously for the camera, dons fake nails and swimming goggles, blows bubbles through a straw at goldfish in a tank, and, in two memorable images, traverses a barbed-wire fence to stand in a field in a kind of Cat in the Hat bandleader outfit pointing a stick at a pig.

When viewed as a group, these compelling portraits offer clues to each girl’s personality, but their true strength lies in Sanguinetti’s pinpointing of the startling uncanniness of children. From the visual surprise of the opposite body types they depict to the surreal nature of the mythical scenes they document, these images present childhood as a period characterized by ambiguous gender roles, a tendency toward the asocial, and a dreamlike unreality at once pleasant and jarring. The fundamental point here is that each girl comprises both Self and Other: In the candid shots, they display the peculiar fusion, the unquestioned equality of the childhood friendship, while their markedly disproportionate bodies suggest only difference (a difference that threatens to play out uncomfortably in the hostile wilderness of adolescence); in their playacting, their undeveloped forms morph in and out of roles as men and women and as mythical figures including Ophelia and the Virgin Mary. Among adults, they stand and lean awkwardly, seeming at once assured and vulnerable. And as the camera records their entry into adolescence, the girls become perceptibly, if slightly, stranger to each other, infinitesimally more distant.

It must feel very glamorous to have one’s very own photographer, especially when part of the idea is to “collaborate” with the artist. By creating their own scenes, the girls retain their power as subjects in the face of the appropriating and distorting shutter—a status as rare among children as among mature female subjects. Some of the photographs of Guille standing alone (face hidden by a large flower, a golden wig, or her friend’s head) also capture a tangible immersion in a moment, a withdrawal into an imagined self, the photo recording that self’s own acknowledgement of the moment, eyes closed, yet acutely aware. Like the dress-up pictures, these images document a self both showing and hiding, permitting the shot but also being captured. The fleeting moment captured here is not the innocence of childhood but an original moment of confrontation with the Other, the crystallization of the process of getting to know oneself in the transition to adulthood—a shift that Sanguinetti and her collaborators portray with remarkable intelligence and wit.

Nell McClister