Put A Frame To The World: Joel Sternfeld

We live in a world that has been over-saturated with color. With Lightroom presets, Photoshop actions, Instagram filters, and the often heavy handed use of HDR, color in photographs can be (and is) taken to the extreme. As nearly everyone seems to have a camera in their hands at all times (they say there are billions of photos taken every day), somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the subtlety of color, the use of color as an actual element in the image. The ability to use color in a photograph to make it a work of art, as opposed to just an snapshot, is rare. We sometimes forget that there was a time not very long ago that color was considered new. While Kodak released the first consumer camera, the Brownie, to the public in 1900, it was less than 40 years ago when William Eggleston had his controversial and groundbreaking exhibit at the MoMA, which proved to critics everywhere that color photography is a legitimate art form and deserving of the same respect as black and white. This exhibit was the beginning in the shift in thinking which strongly influenced other photographers, particularly a young newcomer to the profession, Joel Sternfeld.

Majoring in art at Dartmouth, Sternfeld had a fascination with color and the role it played in photography. From the time he first started shooting in the late 60s/early 70s, he was experimenting with color and how it would affect what he was trying to say. He spent days walking around the streets of New York with his 35mm camera and rolls of Kodachrome, trying to find his own style. “I was enthralled by Eggleston, as everybody was,” he says, “but I knew if I was ever to make a mark, I’d have to go to places he hadn’t headed. He owned the poetic snapshot, but I’d always had this leaning towards narrative, and so I began to lean a little harder.”

The color theories of the Bauhaus played an important role in his beginning career. The Bauhaus theory explored the idea that colors can be grouped together based on their pigments. Although color is absolute (red is red is red), how we experience it depends on where it is, what the light is like that is around it, and how it relates to other colors. The other part of the theory is that color is connected with form and emotion and affects people psychologically. These ideas impacted Sternfeld’s style; he was always looking at different ways colors were put together naturally in the environment. “Black and white is abstract; color is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world,” Sternfeld says. “Color is the real world. The job of the color photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.”

Following in the footsteps of Robert Frank, he received a Guggenheim fellowship to photograph the American landscape. He knew, however, that 35mm would not get him the images he wanted. Unlike Frank, who was able to capture spontaneous street photographs with his smaller camera, Sternfeld was after something different. He wanted not only the details of individuals, but also the entire context of their environment. His aim was to show the landscape as the context of these individual’s lives, so he moved to an 8×10 large format camera.

From 1978 to 1986, Sternfeld traveled across the country in a camper van exploring and shooting all along the way. This project, American Prospects, would become his seminal work and is now considered to be one of the most important photography series of the period. Although they were taken with an 8×10 camera, none of the images looks posed or arranged. We feel somewhat voyeuristic when looking at them; almost as if we are intruding on lives and environments that are otherwise meant to be private, and yet, these photos are also laced with hints of irony and humor. Using what was becoming his trademark subdued color palette, as well as his knack for finding unusual situations, this was the work that put Sternfeld on the map.

After focusing all of his time on American Prospects, Sternfeld went on to pursue several more projects, saying, “One project has grown into another, and into a long chain of work that has kept me engaged for 30 years.” His series, Stranger Passing, took place over a space of fourteen years (1987-2001). Concentrating on portraits of ordinary people doing ordinary things, he allowed each image to tell a story. Sternfeld kept his distance from the subject and we see the portraits as just that, portraits. There is familiarity, in that we see ourselves in these images, but there is no deep soul-searching expression; they are just people, individuals we would see on any street at any time.

While Stranger Passing was a project about people, On This Site (taken between 1993 and 1996) was all about places. Intending to make a statement on how violence can happen at the most innocuous of places, the images may seem unremarkable at first glance. However, each of them were taken at locations which have been haunted by tragedy and are hidden in the open. In fact, in some of them, the only way to know that violence had taken place is by the accompanying text. He went to places such as the San Francisco office in which Harvey Milk was assassinated, the crab apple tree in New York City’s Central Park under which the body of Jennifer Levin was discovered in 1986, and the corner where Cari Lightner was run down by a drunk driver (leading her mother to found MADD).

In 2001, Sternfeld was invited to photograph the High Line in Manhattan. The High Line, at that time, was an abandoned rail line elevated above the city streets. Under threat of demolition, community residents were trying to raise awareness of this historic structure in order to preserve it. Sternfeld was thrilled at the opportunity, knowing only a few in the city even knew this existed. “Sometimes people look at pictures of the High Line and think I’ve digitally altered the picture to put this beautiful pathway through New York City, but there is nothing digital about it,” he says. “This is just a magic landscape that exists in space and time.” Where a lot of his previous images show how man has affected the environment, these show how the environment quickly takes over once man disappears. The community effort and Sternfeld’s photographs paid off. In 2009, the High Line was transformed into a public park, which is now enjoyed regularly by thousands of NYC residents.

In the last decade, Sternfeld has concentrated his efforts on a four-book project. The first, Sweet Earth, is a series of images exploring the history of alternative communities or “experimental utopias in America,” as he calls them. “As the world seemed to turn in unison to hyper-capitalism and large scale urbanism,” he says, “I wanted to point out that there were other models.” When It Changed is a continuation of the first book; a series of portraits of delegates from the 11th UN Conference on Climate Change in 2005, all taken “when the horror of what they hear becomes visible on their faces.” The third book, Oxbow Archive, takes the theme to its next logical step. Sternfeld spent a year and a half walking a field in Massachusetts, recording it every day, saying, “after hearing what I heard in Montreal, documenting this field felt urgent, because of the possibility it was going to change radically in the next fifty or one hundred years.” The fourth, and final book in this series, is iDubai. Shooting solely with his iPhone, he wanted to make a statement on the consumer culture we live in.

For Joel Sternfeld, regardless of the subject matter is, or even the medium, his photographs have always been, and always will be, about color. He is one of a select few photographers who possess the ability to make what, on first glance, looks to be an innocuous snapshot into a masterpiece, based primarily on the color palette in the image. For him, the philosophy of shooting is that “No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful – but photographs have always been convincing lies.”


Joel Sternfeld
Joel Sternfeld on Pinterest

Recommended Reading

Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects
Joel Sternfeld: Walking the High Line

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