Joel Sternfeld Retrospective: America in Colour

Article by Natasha Klimenko in Berlin; Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012

The washed out yellows and blues of barren deserts, the greying beige of airports and parking lots, electric spandex and torn cotton, empty streets and populated swimming pools. Linguistically, they are sentence fragments. Visually, they are photographs, spanning a time frame of almost four decades of America – America captured and portrayed in colour, in crime, in space, natural and built.

Hung on the walls of C/O Berlin and contained in hardbound publications, the retrospective of Joel Sternfeld’s photography consists of over ten collections of his work, featuring prominent series, such as the 1978-1986 American Prospects, the 1987-2000 Stranger Passing, and the 1997 publication of On This Site: Landscape in Memorium. C/O’s curatorial work is particularly well done, blending the wide array of Sternfeld’s themes through contextualizing them both in his specific conceptual and technical developments, but also tying them to socio-political issues and major points in the history of photography.

Providing a detailed visual and linguistic account of Sternfeld’s progression, the exhibition starts with his photographs from the 1970s, capturing spontaneous moments of American life with thrown flashes and candidly awkward composition. As suggested by C/O, “Sternfeld emphasizes the fleeting moment a photograph snatches from the continuum of time.” While this feeling is strongly felt in the early snapshots, it is simultaneously retained in the later, more controlled, large format work as well.

Having been one of the first photographers to bring colour outside of consumer and commercial spheres and into the gallery, Sternfeld’s use of colour is certainly noteworthy. The painterly quality of colours that are simultaneously vivid and soft, and the delicacy of the balanced contrasts, contribute to a realism of a moment barely beyond motion. The later photographs, particularly from the American Prospects and Stranger Passing series, contain a stillness comparable to the breathing body — the fire might as well continue to burn, and the smoke drift by.

Throughout these collections of work, American life can be considered one of the major focuses. However, rather than providing a stereotype or fixed identity, Sternfeld offers diverse perspectives, selecting varied subjects and locations for his large-scale portraits and landscape shots, thus allowing both the opulent and impoverished, both the natural and the entirely artificial, to be witnessed by the viewer. Compared by C/O to the German photographer August Sander, who’s portraiture work focused on capturing the identity of professions, Sternfeld follows a similar tradition, but with what a more “American” flavour. Sternfeld’s portraits, rather, capture the individualism of his subjects, depicting them in settings that appear appropriate for them. In series such as the 1993-2005 Sweet Earth, he also utilizes this method to capture alternative communities (and their failures) living on the borders of orthodox lifestyles.

When observing the landscapes, it is noticeable that even in more romantic works, such as the 2005-2007 Oxbow Archive, which documents the North Hamptons in Massachusetts, there is often the presence of human intervention. Whether in the subtle presence of tire imprints in a dirt road, or the in more conspicuous images of paved land and industry, these photographs consistently point to the presence of the human in nature: “The pictures explore people’s relationship to the American landscape as formed and informed by them” (C/O Berlin).

In later works, this relation becomes intensified or reversed. Walking the Highline, from 2000-2001, documents the degradation of an abandoned rail line and the natural overgrowth occurring in the process, thus demonstrating the inversion of space as colonized by man, showing nature as a harsh and destructive element. In a portraiture series from the 2003 UN Climate Change Conference, When it Changed, this relation becomes particularly violent, contrasting the human figure with scientific publications predicting the vicious effects of climate change.

The socio-political concern or inclination of Sternfeld’s work appears with different levels throughout the exhibition. At times, it is blatant, as with the images of from When it Changed and Treading on Kings, regarding the protest of the Genoa G8 Summit of 2001. In works such as these, the message overshadows the images and points beyond them into the gravity of what is being documented.

This relation between image and context occurs most powerfully in On This Site, a documentation of major crime scenes after physical evidence of the crime had disappeared. The collection is not displayed on the walls, but rather in one of the several books included with the retrospective. Initially, the image is mundane, almost vacant—a schoolyard, a sidewalk, the side of a highway. Upon reading the provided descriptions, the image is immediately saturated with a sense of horrific and depraved meaning—murders, deaths, arsons, political crimes. Demonstrative of a criticism towards the sort objectivity an image itself may contain, this series also promotes “the Book” as a medium of exhibition and points further to the political aspects of Sternfeld’s work, and his dedication to careful considerations of the topics of representation.

C/O suggests that a “reserved and detached view [is present] throughout” certain series, such as Stranger Passing. Nonetheless, a feeling of melancholy drifts throughout the gallery halls accompanying the images — is this the effect of Sternfeld’s subjective gaze, or something within the photographs themselves? Could it be the stark, realistic presentations of the American Dream, with the loneliness of suburban life, the destructive environmental results of big industry, the “other side” of freedom and opulence—poverty and crime?


Additional Information

C/O Berlin
Joel Sternfeld – Retrospective Exhibition
Exhibition: 10 November 2012 – 13 January 2012
Oranienburger Straße 35/36 (click here for map)

Natasha Klimenko is a writer and visual artist living in Berlin. Originally from Canada, she received a BA in Cultural Theory and History from the University of King’s College, Halifax. Currently, Natasha is interning as a journalist at Berlin Art Link, working as a videographer and photographer for Artconnect Berlin, and partaking in film projects.

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