It is an epic journey across America—off the beaten track of tourist travel and far away from the celebrated national sights. The landscapes, streetscapes, parks, and houses that appear—along with their residents—in Joel Sternfeld’s photographs initially seem unspectacular, harmless, and familiar. Yet the images are unexpectedly powerful. Barely concealed beneath the surface of these images are failed utopias, forgotten fates, and bloody crime scenes. Joel Sternfeld peels away the layers soberly and precisely, bringing to light the limitations of human perception, the lightness of forgetting, and the everyday nature of violence. The explosive power of his pictures lies precisely in their quiet refusal of all sensationalism, revealing a skeptical yet occasionally affectionate view of a shattered nation at the end of the twentieth century.
Sternfeld conceived of his various series as distinct, autonomous wholes. Each one was preceded by intensive background research, and he often presented his work with descriptive accompanying texts. It is only through these texts that viewers can put what they are seeing in context: the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, a religious cult’s farm, or the site of a brutal rape in the middle of Central Park. It is precisely this mode of presentation that lends Sternfeld’s penetrating studies of American society their explosive power. At the same time, his approach spotlights the problem of objectivity and the fact that photography—and pictures in general—are always subject to interpretation. “Experience has taught me again and again that you can never know what lies beneath a surface or behind a façade. Our sense of place, our understanding of photographs of the landscape is inevitably limited and fraught with misreading,” Joel Sternfeld once said. His pictures are more than just serious, illustrative, and critical; they are also ironic and humorous—but with a Freudian nervousness that belies the presence of an unpleasant inner truth.
In cooperation with the Folkwang Museum, Essen, C/O Berlin will be presenting the first major retrospective of the work of Joel Sternfeld in Germany. The exhibition will comprise his series American Prospects, Sweet Earth, Stranger Passing and On this Site.