Joel Sternfeld began making colour photographs in the 1970’s and is known for documenting people and places in the USA, with projects such as American Prospects (1987), On This Site: Landscapes in Memoriam (1996) and Stranger Passing (2001). His photographs of New York’s High Line, an abandoned goods train line running through Manhattan’s Lower West Side, played an important role in enabling its transformation into a public open space.
Way back in January when I was really, really ill I had a ticket to see Joel Sternfeld talk at the Photographers Gallery. Even though I felt like death warmed up, had spent 3 days off sick in bed, the trains were screwed due to derailments and signal failures, I managed to drag my carcass up to London and got there by the skin of my teeth, to meet the man himself, before the talk began.
Prior to the talk Joel did a book signing, and I was the penultimate person before they closed the line. The staff were most adamant, ‘move along quickly, please don’t talk, we don’t have the time.’ Customers in front of me had brought libraries with them to be signed, they wanted anecdotes, this book to that person, this book to that one, can this book have such ‘n’ such written in it, Joel had the grace to fulfill every demand…I was flagging, the layers I had worn due to the cold weather outside and being ill were now grossly oppressive…as I visibly wilted and stripped off in the diminishing line I gradually got to the front. I smiled a weak smile, ‘Please, I’d love it if you’d just sign my book…I don’t need a dedication, thank you so much.’
Joel looked at me, despite my deathly appearance, he had a roguish twinkle in his eye, smiled and said, ‘and there I was going to declare my undying adoration for you…’ what a delightfully, charming man. His talk that evening was brilliant, but what I shall also remember is his kindness to a dishevelled, wilting person who was running a temperature, resembled Rudolf and looked like they were going to fall over at any moment. Bless you. I declare my undying adoration for you ;oD
On to the talk… Sean O’Hagan has described him as ‘affable and eccentric’, I would probably agree with that to a certain extent, but more so, self-aware, self-depreciating, humorous, intelligent, curious and very charismatic.
Joel took to the stage by himself, there was no interviewer to act as a buffer between the man himself and the audience. He stood in front of a large screen and operated the PowerPoint presentation taking us step by step through his various bodies of work, how and why he took them. Interspersed are several images of Joel as a young man. He apologised to those to whom he had refused selfies during the book signing…he didn’t want to be looked at as older than he was when he started out, he felt that his audience might question the relevance of his images, and not relate to them if they thought ‘he,’ the ‘him now,’ had taken them. Valid point I guess.
He opened with describing how he felt back in 1980, the time of Ronald Reagan being voted in a POTUS, and feels today, the same, if not a greater sense of apocalypse. Prophetic words given the events of this week between America and Russia/Syria and North Korea…Trump is treading some seriously dangerous ground.
Influenced greatly by The Young Trailers series by Joseph Altsheler, Thoreau diaries and a description of Spring, The Outermost House : A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, and Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale, when Sternfeld set off in his Volkswagen camper van (with a large format 8×10 inch camera) he decided to follow the seasons across America. Some people were shocked to discover many of his images were posed but he laughed, and explained how could they not be when he was shooting on a large format camera on a tripod?
The book I asked Joel to sign was the culmination of that adventure, published in 1987, American Prospects, is now regarded as a classic. Although it contains much humour Joel states: ‘it was for me a deeply serious and political enterprise.’
He admits, somewhat sadly, that he now uses a more compact, smaller, digital camera. This change was forced upon him due to airport security and an incident in Gezi Park in Istanbul, when he was spotted with his large format camera and intimidated by the riot police.
I look up and there’s a guy screaming at me and he’s got a long baton raised… however it was also partly an aesthetic decision as I feel like digital has a kind of look of now.
Giles Huxley-Parlour, director of Beetles+Huxley, has stated:
Sternfeld’s work has become an influential part of art history and has shaped the way that the world looks at American life and culture. His pioneering early colour photographs present a country of immense beauty and opportunity, but one seemingly stuck at a turning point: proud of its past as a noble experiment in democracy, but fraught with various new and disturbing forces. His work resonates strongly today at a time of such upheaval in American politics and society.
A few weeks after the talk, and when I was feeling much healthier, I went along to Beetles+Huxley to view exhibition, which included some previously unseen images as well as some of the more iconic photographs; a circus elephant stranded on a rural road and a fireman apparently shopping for a pumpkin at a roadside stall while a house blazes in the background.
The scene reveals a farmers’ market in McLean, Virginia, with the helmeted fireman shopping for pumpkins, leaving his companions to fight the flames engulfing a two-story home down the road. Whilst the event actually occurred all is not as it seems; the fire was a training exercise from which the fireman was taking a break. The only information supplied is the location and date. There is no explanation, no accusation, we are allowed to tell our own narrative. If this picture deceives it only does so due to our own prejudices. Sternfeld recognizes the ‘passive-aggressive coerciveness of pictures,’ and embraces their ability to manipulate.
You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. A photograph is only a fragment of a shattered pot.
Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.
Having seen the colour work of other photographers, including William Eggleston’s Guide, and having spoken to John Szarkowski, (who called him ‘the worried photographer’) ‘I didn’t quite fit into the old tradition or the new one,’ Sternfeld had to make the decision of what he was going to do with colour. At the time he believed that you couldn’t do contemporary landscapes in B&W, but on reflection and looking at Robert Adams concedes maybe he was wrong stating:
There are exceptions, of course. I’ve never seen a Robert Adams photograph that hasn’t amazed me.
I was enthralled by Eggleston, as everybody was… but I knew if I was ever to make a mark, I’d have to go to places he hadn’t headed.
The tonality he uses in his images are influenced by Josef Albers and Bauhaus colour theory, with using three colours of equal density and looking at gradations of saturation, he mentions Paul Klee, but Sternfeld doesn’t use vibrant primary tones; they are similar to the pastel tonality used in Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, published in 1982.
Sternfeld set off to capture climate change, as even then he sensed that something was going wrong. He revisited this idea later in the Oxbow Archive, citing artist Thomas Cole as inspiration. We skip through his work capturing the migrant workers of the Kickapoo tribes and how their story of travelling from Mexico to the US to work is as relevant today as it was then, how he went to Rome and was heavily influenced by the history of the place.
We pause for longer on his exploration of the darker side of US society in On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam, where ordinary places are ‘rendered ominous by the terrible things that happened there’. In this book he included text to be as equally important as the images. We take in photographs of Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America -Joel Sternfeld selected sixty representative historic or present American utopias. Again each photograph is accompanied by a text that summarizes the most relevant aspects of the history/organization of the community. Interestingly, he comments that this text is all his own, but the validity of the facts have never been disputed. One of very few photographers who include a lot of writing in their photo-books he bemoans: ‘You can’t convince some museums that the text is part of the art.’
It is sad to see that the new Magnum photographers, although embracing new ways of capturing documentary images, also fail to realise that text can be just as important as the images. However, on the flip side I do think that by giving too much information, context or a background in a caption, you can close down the meaning of an image. If nothing is left to the imagination or to interpretation, it becomes less intriguing or puzzling to the audience.
You can tell he still teaches, as he gives all the standard academic references: Eggleston, Stephen Shore, John Szarkowski, August Sander, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lucas Blalock ,Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas and Jeff Wall. An interesting point he made was that he thought Steichen’s work The Family of Man was a highly agendendered body of work, produced as a way of winning the Cold War…
Other projects include Stranger Passing – Sternfeld made full-length portraits of the random people he encountered on his journeys, and Walking the High Line which ‘chronicled the grass, weed and wildflower-strewn tracks of the disused elevated railway that ran through the west of Manhattan.’ This has since become a landscaped nature walkway.
Lastly, Joel tells us of an ambitious project to chronicle the history of mankind:
A Stack of Bricks outside of Kolkata, India
Bricks dating back to 7500 BC have been found at Tell Aswad in the upper Tigris region of what is now modern Syria.
In Exodus 1:14; 5:4-19 we are told that the Egyptians “came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in bricks and mortar.”
Union Solidarity International has been campaigning against “blood bricks” in India since 2012. In the words of Andrew Brody, “its modern day slavery. Entire families of men, women, and children are working for a pittance, up to 16 hours a day in terrible conditions. There are horrific abuses of minimum wage rates and health and safety regulations, and it’s often bonded labor, so they can’t escape.” Image and text ©Joel Sternfeld. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Beetles+Huxley
London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona
At a narrow point in the Thames River, Romans, who had recently invaded what is now modern-day England, built a bridge. The year was 50 AD—the city of London grew up around that bridge.
Over ensuing centuries, many replacement bridges have been built, each bearing the appellation ‘London Bridge.’
In the early 19th century, a stone bridge was built. By the 1960s it was sinking into the muddy bottom of the Thames at a rate of 1 inch every 8 years. Not quite falling down, but sufficiently alarming to induce the city of London to sell the bridge.
Piece by piece it was dismantled, brought to Lake Havasu, Arizona, and reassembled.
Riding his bicycle over the bridge one day, David Jensen concluded that an Italian Gondola concession would go well with London Bridge. He built his gondola and proceeded to ply romantic tourists with arias in Italian, French, German, and Japanese. Image and text © Joel Sternfeld. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Beetles+Huxley
All too soon the evening was over, I had a notebook full of scribbles, which I eventually have managed to decipher and make sense of. Despite the size of this post I still don’t think I have managed to do justice to a photographer who:
…consciously reacted against the influence of some of his contemporaries—particularly Egglestone and his “poetic snapshots”—in order to create his own voice in color photography through narrative photographs that, individual and in sequence, speak not words or even phrases, but sentences, paragraphs and stories.
– Phil Bicker Oct 12, 2011
What did I take away from this talk/exhibition?
- That I like his colour palette
- That I like the man as much as I like the photographs
- It is possible to move with the times as far as projects and technologies are concerned
- That even well established photographers have doubts about their newest projects
- The point about ‘deceptive’ or ‘truthful’ images is made very clear in many of his projects
- Authorship is key to understanding motive and resulting images
- Take influences from everywhere, books, poetry, history and existing photographers
- Don’t be afraid to go against the established rules of photography