Research notes – Joel Sternfeld

The following comments come from looking at the book Stranger Passing by Joel Sternfeld (1) as well as browsing through his pictures in the Luhring Augustine Gallery website (2).

Stranger Passing is a book of portraits in full colour. These were taken in the 1980s and 1990s. The format of the book includes one picture per two-page spread, with the picture on the right hand side page, and a caption on the left hand side. The caption are generally just descriptive of what we see, as in “A man cooking his dinner, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 1999” (link) or “Real State Brokers, Westwood, California, May 1988” (link), but in some cases they contain a short description of events affecting the subjects around the time the photograph was taken, as in “A man waiting for a tow truck to take his car to a demolition derby at the county fair, South Hadley, Massachusetts, September 1998. The tow truck never came and he was unable to race that year” (link), or “A farmer taking a break, Iowa, November 1987. She has cancer of the thyroid” (link). The additional information provided by those captions helps the viewer place the subject in a given state of mind, and allows for an additional layer of narrative, when the connection is made between the moment shown in the picture, and what we imagine the subject could be feeling a few hours later. In the “man waiting for a tow truck” picture, for instance, we can get a sense of the subject’s excitement before going into the demolition race, and can imagine his subsequent frustration when the tow truck failed to show up.

I found the pictures themselves to be quite interesting, not for any particular technical aspect, but because of their ambiguity. A lot of the pictures are clearly posed, and in all cases, the subject is fully aware of the photographer’s presence. The title to the book suggests that the photographer did not know his subjects in advance, but in many pictures there is a sense of complicity, of mutual understanding between the subject and the photographer that may betray a relationship or at least brief familiarity between the two. This, however, seems to be broken in those pictures were the subjects look bemused (as in “Summer Interns having lunch, Wall street, New York, New York, August 1987” – link) or even slightly annoyed at the apparent intrusion of the lens in their daily routine (as in “A lawyer with laundry, New York, New York, October 1998” – link). Other than what we see, however, there is no clear evidence that these pictures are genuinely candid or staged. The viewer is left to wander that on its own.

The series At the Mall, New Jersey, shot in the early 1980s, is also mostly a collection of portraits and not necessarily what we would expect to see from the title. There are several pictures of couples and families, presumably shoppers at the mall, but the shots are quite tight and is hard to figure out the context of the images, others than through clues included in some of the images, such as people holding shopping bags or the goods they have just purchased, or store front signs in the background. While the pictures in Stranger Passing were frontal, leaving no doubts about the presence of the photographer, in At the Mall there are a few images which are taken from behind the subject (such as “New Jersey, (#3) May / June 1980” – link, and “New Jersey, (#25) May / June 1980” – link), and which look more candid. As these images where shot at close range, one could have some doubts as to whether the subjects were aware that they were being photographed or if the images were actually staged. All in all, the series seems to be more about people the photographer have encountered on location, but the location itself does not seem to mean much (other than providing a backdrop), and these pictures could have been easily taken at any other place with the same effect.

In Rush Hour, taken in the mid-1970s, Sternfeld approach is reminiscent of the early colour work of Joel Meyerowitz (see my observations on this here). The images have a somewhat chaotic or disorienting feeling to them, with many being slightly slanted (see for example “New York City (#2), 1976” – link), taken from a high angle (like in the case of “New York City (#16), 1976” – link) or showing the subjects too close (see for instance “Chigago (#6), 1976” – link).  Like in many of the pictures in At the Mall, Sternfeld makes extensive use of flash, in many cases for fill, but in other cases rendering the background so dark that it is not possible to determine the time of the day with certainty (see for instance “New York City (#14), 1976” – link), which adds to the disorienting feeling. I presume that Sternfeld wanted to show us life in large metropolis was always unpredictable and in a rush, and to an extent the pictures show that, but there is also an element of interference by the photographer, which is not a far-off bystander but very much in the middle of the action, in some cases literally within breathing space of his subjects. It is impossible to conceive some of these pictures without the subjects being aware of the presence of the photographer. The photos all look candid enough to assume that either the subjects did not care or were directed to act naturally, but I find the angle of view combined with the use of flash a little bit disturbing in some cases.

The approach is completely different in the series Walking the high line, which was shot in the early 2000 in a disused section of the elevated West Side rail line in New York city (recently converted into a park, but derelict at the time Sternfeld took his pictures). In here, we are not shown people, just straight shots of abandoned railroad filled with grass and wild flowers, changing through the seasons (see for instance “A view towards the Hudson, February, 2001” – link, and a shot with a similar view a few month later in “A Spring evening, the Hudson, May, 2001” – link) and contrasting with the functioning buildings in the background. These images are evocative of an oasis of tranquility among the rush of city life. Perhaps to emphasize this, Sternfeld’s pictures are shot completely leveled with verticals corrected (he likely used a view camera) and no flash. There is no intention of creating any dynamism in the images, as these are not about action but more about retreating and contemplating.

Sternfeld returns to street photography in the series iDubai, taken in the middle eastern city. While many of the pictures in the series were taken in malls, according to the captions, the approach followed by Sternfeld is completely different from At the Mall, New Jersey. The photographer here has decided to maintain good distance to his subjects, cementing his position of outsider, with many of the shots being taken from the back, and possibly in a concealed way (see for instance “Cinema, Mall of Dubai, 2008-2009” – link, and “Burjuman Centre, 2008-2009 – link). The images in here are also quite plain from an aesthetical perspective, having a snapshot quality. The whole series feels like what a tourist would take when he goes to a place for the first time and finds something either out of the ordinary (such as the shiny chrome car in “Valet parking, Kempinski hotel, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009” – link) or connected to home (as in Burger King, West food court, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009″ – link), and fails to provide (perhaps purposely) any sort of judgement on the matters portrayed.
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(1) Sternfeld, J., Nickel, D. and Frazier, I. (2001). Stranger passing. New York: Melcher media.

(2) Luhringaugustine.com. (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists – Luhring Augustine. [online] Available at: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/artworks [Accessed 17 Jul. 2017].

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