Sternfeld’s work of the 1980’s carries forward the passionate pursuit of Walker Evans from the 1930’s and Robert Frank in the 1950’s: a unique vision of culture, place and character - an essence of America. Focusing on the odd yet increasingly common scenes where city meets country, where technology meets nature, where nature often wins the day, and where the environment plays an indelible role in shaping the human spirit. In his photographs Sternfeld finds, again and again, the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Concentrating on differing bodies of work, Sternfeld’s insight into the human spirit and psyche of the internal landscape brings a tender and ambiguous tone to the way we view the world surrounding us. In his first monograph "American Prospects", a seminal study of changing national character, Sternfeld explored the tenuous relationship between humanity and nature. In "Campagna Romana: The Countryside of Ancient Rome", he looked at ruins on the outskirts of modern Rome suggesting that decline and fall may occurs in all civilizations. "On this Site" joins and deepens the discourse between these books while raising another important issue: the problematic nature of photographic representation. "On this Site" forever calls into question the simple innocence of a beautiful landscape.
"American Prospects" is a visual chronicle that is at once funny and despairing, ravishing and grim. His landscapes are full of surprise and deadpan wit: a renegade elephant lies exhausted on a road; beached whales punctuate a majestic seascape; a fireman buys pumpkins while a house burns down behind him. The irony and high–minded melancholy of Sternfeld’s visions were etched from eight years of criss-crossing the country in a Volkswagen camper. Whether seen as profoundly sad or strangely hopeful, these pictures have the poignancy and resonance of an America uneasy about its past and uncertain of its future.
Continuing the traditional genre of portraiture, Sternfeld’s "Contemporary Portraits" take a more scathing personal insight into the psyche of the sitter. Often deadpan and confronting, he manages to portray a realism that is beyond the picture and speaks of large issues of place, class, social problems and at times a sense of hope.
"On this Site" is a sobering collection of photographs, which looks at the places where violence has stained the American landscape. Arriving long after news photographers have gone, Sternfeld presents us with the landscape that is left behind, the ordinary site that remains after the tragedy. Free of the sensationalism of contemporary reporting, these unadorned images, and the brief text that accompanies them, have a surprising power, allowing us to contemplate the meaning of what has taken place, and what has been lost. In this work, Sternfeld extends the documentary tradition, finding a way to visualize our nation shaken by decades of violence. This work asks that we broaden our conventional definition of violence to include the consequences of corporate irresponsibility and governmental indifference. These pictures stand as a heartfelt memorial. They mark sites that have become an indelible part of the American landscape
In summary, nature is the key protagonist in all Sternfeld’s dramas. As the evidence of nature’s protests, and the scars on the land become part of our daily life, desensitized of their shock value as we have grown accustomed to this face of recognition. Sternfeld’s works remain as timeless motifs of suburban sprawl and forays into our cities, eloquently poised between looking back and heading forward.
Joel Sternfeld’s work has been extensively exhibited and collected, most notably at the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Foto Museum in Winterthur, Switzerland. His awards include two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Prix de Rome. Approaching his 60’s, Haines Gallery is excited to be working with an artist of this caliber within the genre of photography.
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