Joel Sternfeld’s retrospective now in its final days at the C/O Gallery covers some forty years of the artist’s career as a storyteller and pioneer of color photography. The exhibition itself tells as much of a story of Sternfeld’s life and his artistic development as each of his photographs do. It’s a colorful trek through the American landscape from the coasts of North Carolina to the rooftops of Chicago and the backyards of Pennsylvania. Yet it’s a journey not so much through America as it is a journey to the people who live there. Over the course of his career we see Sternfeld’s style evolve from capturing simple fleeting moments to depicting fully developed narratives.
The story begins with Nags Head (1975), the name of a small coastal town in North Carolina. Here, using a lightweight camera and a handheld flash, Sternfeld captured seemingly ordinary moments of tanned teenagers crowded into cars, working summer jobs, and hanging out on dark beaches. We see sun-bleached blondes in daisy-dukes, enshrined in a white glow from Sternfeld’s handheld flash, set against a shadowed backdrop of dark parking lots and dingy dive bars. The colors he presents are as vital as the people in them. They are an ever-present modifier: tanned bodies, bleached hair, white-washed walls.
The composition of these early photographs – the frame slightly askew, the subject alienated from its environment by an underexposed and blurry background – seems amateur. They could just as well have been unearthed from an old family photo album labeled, rather than titled, “Nags Head.” Yet this early collection shows Sternfeld’s first and ultimate talent as a storyteller. Ripped from their contexts, these images compel us to imagine missing narratives.
Joel Sternfeld, Nags Head: North Carolina, (#4) , June-August 1975; Courtesy of the artist & C/O Berlin.
This sense of ephemerality and fluidity between moments is developed in American Prospects (1987) and Stranger Passing (2001). In Stranger Passing, Sternfeld’s status as reporter and storyteller becomes more distinct. These stunning portraits of passersby comprise a fifteen-year project in which Sternfeld captured people from every strata of American society in their everyday routines. Two Wall Street interns eating lunch in expensive suits are juxtaposed with a shirtless homeless man holding his bedding. While politically charged in illustrating persisting inequities, Sternfeld is never critical or pitying of the subjects themselves. Rather than calling for an immediate emotional reaction, Sternfeld asks for reflection. He achieves a level of dignity with each of his portraits, revealing a commonality across social divides. Indeed, Sternfeld presents us with people as they would want to be presented to us.
In American Prospects and Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (2006), Sternfeld for the most part loses his human subject and turns his attention instead to the American landscape and civilization’s effect upon it. Even when devoid of human figures, their persisting and unalterable traces become the main subject. In one image from American Prospect we see a group of toy trucks forgotten on a dirt heap in a suburban back yard. Recreating the surrounding development in miniature, Sternfeld illustrates children’s socialization to suburban development. Even playing outside is inextricably linked to building insides. This irony persists throughout the collection with illustrations of failed attempts at maintaining an altered natural environment.
Joel Sternfeld, Sweet Earth: Ruins of Drop City, Trinidad, Colo., August 1995; Courtesy of the artist and C/O Berlin.
In Sweet Earth, Sternfeld presents us with images of attempts at utopic civilizations. We see the abandoned dwelling of Drop City in Colorado, a sustainable housing development in Arizona, and the green rooftops in Chicago. In the book published for the collection, each image is accompanied with text describing the community and its values. Adding descriptions to his collection, Sternfeld again breaks from traditional art photography and yet bridges this gap between art and journalism.
Also in the retrospective is When it changed (2005), a collection of portraits of participants at a United Nations conference on climate change. In this dystopic look at humankind’s stunning effects on the environment, Sternfeld reports the pessimistic and despondent expressions of representatives of countries already ravaged by natural disasters.
The C/O Gallery is the retrospective’s last stop on its tour through Essen, Amsterdam, and Vienna. It will be open until January 13.
(Image on top: Joel Sternfeld, Stranger Passing:Summer Interns Having Lunch, Wall Street, New York, 1987; Courtesy of the artist and C/O Berlin.)