Luhring Augustine is pleased to present First Pictures by Joel Sternfeld. This exhibition is comprised of four distinct bodies of work made between 1971 and 1980, the majority of which have never before been published or exhibited. In these bodies of work we see Sternfeld developing conceptual and formal strategies that are fundamental to his practice over the past four decades; these include the building of narrative, elements of humor and irony, a politicized view of America, as well as a concern for community, social conditions and the environment. In making this early work Sternfeld began to experiment with the Bauhaus-based idea of building a work of art out of two or three dominant hues of relatively equal density; this approach became the central chromatic organizing principle of American Prospects (1978-1986).
The four components of First Pictures each bears its own title. Sternfeld began the first, Happy Anniversary Sweetie Face!, in 1971 and developed it over the next seven years. In it Sternfeld probed the essential nature of the photograph in color including questions of palette and purpose. Nags Head, 1975 documents the eponymous beach town where Sternfeld spent the summer of that year. With this group of pictures he attempted to visually achieve a sense of temporal and spatial fluidity. Rush Hour is comprised of urban street portraits made in Chicago and New York in 1976, the year of America’s uneasy Bicentennial. These pictures attempt to portray the psychological landscape of the country in a time of recession, with the memory of the Vietnam War and Watergate still fresh. The final group of pictures, At the Mall, New Jersey 1980 consists of semi-formal portraits of mall goers presenting their purchases to the camera, a conceptual strategy that foreshadows the circumstantial portraits of Stranger Passing published two decades later.
Sternfeld’s 1970’s America is a depicted as a bittersweet era filled with exuberance but constrained by a sense of a society not living up to its ideals. It is also a time of excitement in photography as emergent color pictures struggled to establish a reason for their being in a universe of black and white and shades of grey. This exhibition is replete with examples of the societal and artistic conditions present at the time of the work’s production and it gives us the occasion to gain a fresh understanding of Sternfeld’s achievement in the eleven bodies of work he went on to make over the next four decades.
The first retrospective exhibition of Joel Sternfeld’s work, organized by Ute Eskildsen, has been on view at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany from 16 July - 23 October 2011. Over the next two years, the exhibition will travel to the Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam from 15 December 2011 - 14 March 2012, the Albertina in Vienna, Austria from 26 June - 14 October 2012, and C/O Berlin from 7 December 2012 - 3 March 2013. This exhibition coincides with the publication of the book First Pictures, published by Steidl.