New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 3 January 16 to 22, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Sternfeld in Berlin
Joel Sternfeld
A Retrospective
Natasha Klimenko
Nags Head, North Carolina by Joel Sternfeld.
Joel Sternfeld, "Nags Head, North Carolina" 1976

The washed out yellows and blues of barren deserts, the graying 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 by Joel Sternfeld that span almost four decades of American life in color, in crime, in space, both natural and constructed.

The C/O retrospective in Berlin 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.

Having been one of the first photographers to bring color into the gallery, Sternfeld’s use of it is certainly noteworthy. The painterly quality of colors simultaneously vivid and soft along with the delicacy of the balanced contrasts contributes to its effectiveness.

Throughout these collections, American life is one of the major focuses. Rather than giving America a stereotypical or fixed identity, Sternfeld offers diverse perspectives, selecting varied subjects and locations for his large-scale portraits and landscape shots. Both the opulent and impoverished, the natural and the artificial, are witnessed by photographer and viewer.

The show’s curators compare him to the German photographer August Sander whose portraiture focused on professional identities. Sternfeld follows a similar tradition, but with a more “American” flavor. His portraits capture the individualism of his subjects, rather than their type, depicting them in settings that appear appropriate. 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 notable that even in more romantic works, such as the 2005-2007 Oxbow Archive, which documents the North Hamptons in Massachusetts, there is often an implied human presence. Whether through tire imprints on a dirt road, or via paved land and industry, these photographs consistently point to it.

The Space Shuttle, San Antonio, Texas, by Joel Sternfeld.
Joel Sternfeld, "The Space Shuttle, San Antonio, Texas," 1979

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, revealing a harsh and destructive nature. 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.

A collection not displayed on the walls, but rather in one of the several books included with the retrospective is On This Site, documenting major crime scenes after physical evidence of the crime disappeared.

Initially, the images are mundane, almost vacant: a schoolyard, a sidewalk, the side of a highway. But after reading the captions, they are saturated with horrific and depraved meanings–—murders, deaths, arsons, political crimes.

Drifting through the gallery halls, accompanying the images, is a certain melancholy. Is this the effect of Sternfeld’s subjective gaze, or something within the photographs themselves? Could the stark, realistic presentations of the American Dream, the loneliness of suburban life, the destructive impact on the environment of big industry, be the “other side” of freedom and opulence?

Sternfeld in Berlin by Natasha Klimenko

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