Joel Sternfeld Retrospective

Having been one of the first photographers to bring colour outside of consumer and commercial spheres and into the gallery, Sternfeld’s use of colour is certainly noteworthy. The painterly quality of colours that are simultaneously vivid and soft, and the delicacy of the balanced contrasts, contribute to a realism of a moment barely beyond motion. The later photographs, particularly from the American Prospects and Stranger Passing series, contain a stillness comparable to the breathing body — the fire might as well continue to burn, and the smoke drift by.

Throughout these collections of work, American life can be considered one of the major focuses. However, rather than providing a stereotype or fixed identity, Sternfeld offers diverse perspectives, selecting varied subjects and locations for his large-scale portraits and landscape shots, thus allowing both the opulent and impoverished, both the natural and the entirely artificial, to be witnessed by the viewer. Compared by C/O to the German photographer August Sander, who’s portraiture work focused on capturing the identity of professions, Sternfeld follows a similar tradition, but with what a more “American” flavour. Sternfeld’s portraits, rather, capture the individualism of his subjects, depicting them in settings that appear appropriate for them. In series such as the 1993-2005 Sweet Earth, he also utilizes this method to capture alternative communities (and their failures) living on the borders of orthodox lifestyles.

When observing the landscapes, it is noticeable that even in more romantic works, such as the 2005-2007 Oxbow Archive, which documents the North Hamptons in Massachusetts, there is often the presence of human intervention. Whether in the subtle presence of tire imprints in a dirt road, or the in more conspicuous images of paved land and industry, these photographs consistently point to the presence of the human in nature: “The pictures explore people’s relationship to the American landscape as formed and informed by them” .

In later works, this relation becomes intensified or reversed. Walking the Highline, from 2000-2001, documents the degradation of an abandoned rail line and the natural overgrowth occurring in the process, thus demonstrating the inversion of space as colonized by man, showing nature as a harsh and destructive element. In a portraiture series from the 2003 UN Climate Change Conference, When it Changed, this relation becomes particularly violent, contrasting the human figure with scientific publications predicting the vicious effects of climate change.

The socio-political concern or inclination of Sternfeld’s work appears with different levels throughout the exhibition. At times, it is blatant, as with the images of from When it Changed and Treading on Kings, regarding the protest of the Genoa G8 Summit of 2001. In works such as these, the message overshadows the images and points beyond them into the gravity of what is being documented.

This relation between image and context occurs most powerfully in On This Site, a documentation of major crime scenes after physical evidence of the crime had disappeared. The collection is not displayed on the walls, but rather in one of the several books included with the retrospective. Initially, the image is mundane, almost vacant—a schoolyard, a sidewalk, the side of a highway. Upon reading the provided descriptions, the image is immediately saturated with a sense of horrific and depraved meaning—murders, deaths, arsons, political crimes. Demonstrative of a criticism towards the sort objectivity an image itself may contain, this series also promotes “the Book” as a medium of exhibition and points further to the political aspects of Sternfeld’s work, and his dedication to careful considerations of the topics of representation.


Joel Sternfeld (Nueva York-EE UU, 1944) es uno de los grandes fotógrafos vivos. No sólo por su amplísima obra —empezó a hacer fotos en 1970 y sigue en ello—, sino por sus aportaciones artísticas —sobre todo, el uso con fines dramáticos del color— y la coherencia sin desmayo con que se ha dedicado a mostrar el paisaje social estadounidense.

Uno de los fotógrafos más vehementes, honestos y éticos del último medio siglo. Su dedicación a los dramas y cambios que ha sufrido la sociedad estadounidense, la forma irónica y tierna con que los ha enfrentado fotográficamente y la falta de vanidad de su comportamiento le han convertido en una referencia profesional imposible de evitar.

Influido por William Eggleston y las teorías de la Bauhaus, Sternfeld desarrolló pronto su propio estilo: añadió el color como elemento intencionado a la larga larga tradición fotográfica del paisaje social estadounidense. Viajero incansable, recorrió el país durante años —su furgoneta Volkswagen nunca le defraudó— ejerciendo de observador crítico de peculiaridades y contradicciones. La mayoría de sus imágenes exploran los efectos de la política y las relaciones del ser humano con el medio ambiente.

Con el lenguaje visual del documentalismo que había heredado de Walker Evans y Robert Frank, Sternfeld desarrolló un papel específico para el color, que supo utilizar de manera intencionada para las fotos callejeras o de reportajes.

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