Joel Sternfeld: A Review
Joel Sternfeld was one of the best-known “new color” photographers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the first generation to use color film for serious art photography. (Before then, color photos were associated mainly with advertising and other commercial work.) The other two big names in this category are William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, and while Sternfeld is right between them in age, he didn’t break out until a bit later with his ‘80s project American Prospects, known for some truly striking large-format shots of human-altered landscapes (above and below).
I recently visited a large and impressive retrospective show of Sternfeld’s work at the C/O Berlin gallery. Although it covers his entire career, the most important part of this exhibit is a large collection of previously-unpublished ‘70s photos from before AP, which are also being released in an accompanying book.
These photos have a lot more close-up human subjects than the wide landscapes of AP, and unsurprisingly, they show a lot more similarity overall to the better-known work of Eggleston and (particularly) Shore from the same period, and the ‘60s street photography of Helen Levitt. Many also remind me of Bill Owens’ (black and white) 1973 series Suburbia.
All these photographers had achieved some success with black and white art photography before switching to color, but (as far as I can tell) Sternfeld was working with color from the beginning, and I get the feeling this made him less focused on the colors themselves and more interested in the story implied by the picture.
Like many people I am most familiar with American Prospects, which is one of the first photography books I bought and still one of my favorites. And I can see how a lot of commentary on these early pictures will focus on how they foreshadow his later work. But I think a lot of them hold up very well on their own:
If they’re not quite at the level of AP in terms of composition and technical skill, they’re a lot more sincere and innocent, and in this sense they’re a breath of fresh air in comparison to his later work, which makes up the rest of the exhibition.
All of Sternfeld’s projects since AP have been a lot more topical, and I find them pretty hit-and-miss. It’s easy to see why none has achieved quite the same level of acclaim and influence. His photos of the pre-renovation High Line in Manhattan are the low point, so dull and heavy with pretense that you could almost cut it with a knife. I saw these in New York when they were first exhibited and couldn’t understand what they were doing in a museum, and time hasn’t improved them. This is the worst kind of art photography, the kind that’s so aggressively bland on the surface that it instantly divides the viewers into those who “get” the trendy political subtext and those who don’t:
A more successful example of these later projects is Sweet Earth, which documents communes and other alternative/utopian residential schemes, both active and defunct. You can tell that Sternfeld is sympathetic to these projects in the same way that you could tell he wanted to preserve the High Line, but in this case you don’t need to know anything about the context to appreciate the photos, which are intricate and beautifully composed in a way that recalls the best of his ’80s portfolio:
The other post-AP work falls on a spectrum between these two. Another good one is Stranger Passing, a series of portraits that also remind me (in a good way) of Bill Owens. Another goofy political one is the series of “crime scene” photos ranging from the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested to land stolen from the Sioux by the American government. (OK, Joel, we get it.)
Last year, in response to something else I wrote here, a reader replied by email that “narratives of decline are bullshit, particularly when speaking about culture.” I can see what he means, and in this case, I’m definitely conforming to the cliché of favoring an artist’s earlier work and judging the later stuff more harshly. But it’s worth thinking about the mechanisms that can cause a real decline rather than just a perceived one, and one of them may be that if you start out as more of a documentary artist, it’s hard to become a political one later on. I have nothing against topical or political art per se, but the best political art is generally made by angry young outsiders, not the elder statesmen of the medium. I suspect I would agree with many of Sternfeld’s political views, but my appetite for being lectured about them in a museum by a millionaire college professor is pretty low.
But overall, this exhibit is very well done and definitely worth seeing, and the collection of early work (“First Pictures”) is a clear second to AP in Sternfeld’s catalog.