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Vienna's Albertina offers first survey of the US artist Joel Sternfeld’s work in Austria
Joel Sternfeld
, Summer Interns Having Lunch, Wall Street, New York, August 1987 © Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, 2012.

VIENNA.- This exhibition offers the first survey of the US artist Joel Sternfeld’s work in Austria. The Albertina shows eleven series by the photographer dating from between the early 1970s and 2007.

Influenced by William Eggleston, but also by the color theories of the Bauhaus, Joel Sternfeld, who was born in New York in 1944, began to experiment with color photography in the 1970s and soon developed his own style. He brought color to bear on a subject that had a long photographic tradition in the United States: the American social landscape. A critical observer, Sternfeld travelled across the USA for years, capturing the country and its inhabitants in all their peculiarities and contradictions. Most of his pictures explore political and social issues by representing their subjects’ relationship to nature or the landscape around them. Sternfeld’s photographs combine a documentary objective with an artist’s view. Their visual language has its predecessors in Walker Evans and Robert Frank, who were advocates of black-and-white photography, though. Seen against this background, Sternfeld’s photographs are to be understood not only as a chronicle of the last forty years’ American history, but also evidence a development process in the course of which color came to bring forth an entirely specific visual language.

Nags Head
Next to William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld ranks among the most important representatives of New Color Photography, a quite heterogeneous group of photographers who have relied on color as a stylistic device for artistic photography since the 1970s. A perfectly natural means of expression today, color was frowned upon in artistic photography in those days. While color was used in popular photography, like in the fields of advertising and fashion, traditional artistic photographs were black-and-white. William Eggleston’s exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art New York in 1976, which was regarded as scandalous when it opened, proved to be a landmark event for the recognition of color photography.

Dating from 1975, Joel Sternfeld’s series Nags Head clearly testifies to the role of color as a means of artistic expression. Precise color areas are as important for the pictures’ composition as the motifs the photographer encountered on the beach of the town Nags Head in North Carolina.

First Pictures
Next to Nags Head, two series of color photographs from the 1970s, Happy Anniversary Sweetie Face! and Rush Hour, stand for Joel Sternfeld’s early work. Following in the tradition of street photography, these series explore various scenes of American everyday culture in a humorous vein, capturing them in a seemingly spontaneous and random visual language. Supposed exposure mistakes and blurs as well as angles fragmentizing the subjects suggest an intuitive and dynamic view of the world. The instantaneous character of the photographs manifests itself in the Rush Hour series in a particularly striking manner. Using a manual flash lighting up the faces of the passers-by for his compositions, Sternfeld emphasizes the fleeting moment a photograph snatches from the continuum of time.

Color proves to be key for the composition. Rich and full color areas not only rhythmize and structure the arrangement, but represent pictorial values in their own right, which are not integrated in a homogeneous whole. This kind of photography which connects everyday motifs with the autonomy of color has been influenced not least by William Eggleston, whom Sternfeld got to know in Harvard in 1976.

American Prospects
Sternfeld shot the series American Prospects while travelling through the United States in a Volkswagen bus for some years. Dating from between 1978 and 1987, the pictures explore people’s relationship to the American landscape as formed and informed by them. The microcosm of often bizarre everyday events that becomes visible here does more than just illustrate man’s problematic use and transformation of the landscape: it also offers a possibility for drawing conclusions on contemporary political and social conditions in the United States.

In American Prospects, Sternfeld frequently renders critical contents by relying on the sovereign use of sublime, vivid color values and contrasts that seem to contradict the depicted serious circumstances. Color, format, and static composition are grounded in Sternfeld’s use of a large-format camera. While he photographed his early series with a small-format camera, which allowed flexible movements and, thus, a spontaneous visual language, the more complicated handling of a large-format camera slows down the picturetaking process. Sternfeld selected his motifs very carefully and precisely planned his pictures’ composition in advance. Both the composition and the general motif of people in a landscape were essentially inspired by solutions of traditional painting like Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s and Jacob van Ruisdael’s.

Stranger Passing
Photographed within a period of fourteen years starting in 1987, Joel Sternfeld’s series Stranger Passing makes the human portrait its crucial issue. Depicted in situ, the subjects are characterized through their outward appearance, their clothes and poses, and the environs in which they present themselves. The pictures show a wide variety of social groups and milieus and center on different life styles. Maintaining a reserved and detached view throughout, Sternfeld keeps a visible distance from his motifs and does not express a judgment – an artistic strategy already pursued by August Sander in his famous photographic project Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century) in the 1920s. But whereas Sander subsumed his models under their professional functions, Sternfeld focuses on representing the portrayed people’s individuality. Their often bizarre (self-) representation visualizes comprehensive social contexts which, in total, offer a manifold and differentiated portrait of American society.

On This Site
Between 1993 and 1996, Joel Sternfeld photographed crime scenes hidden behind apparently everyday places. By depicting such places of destiny, Sternfeld has retrieved suppressed, concealed, or deliberately buried events for the collective memory and thus dismantled patriotic self-presentations of the US.

The pictures reveal a conceptual approach to documentary photography. The comparatively neutral and detached shots show “only” the crime scenes and do not offer any details on the sequence of events. The particulars of the crime are to be found in a text which is part of the work. Image and text provide different contents, which the viewer is asked to put together.

Oxbow Archive
In Oxbow Archive (2005–2007), Sternfeld has made the scenery his sole subject by photographing an area near Northampton in Massachusetts through the changing seasons. The work explores the tradition of cultural norms and phenomena of US culture: the representation of landscapes in pictures has always been an essential dimension of American identity and cultural self-understanding. Wilderness and pristine nature are frequently depicted in stunning, idealized views – for which Ansel Adams and Edward Weston may be cited as examples. A famous painting by the American artist Thomas Cole from 1836 renders the region shown in Oxbow Archive as a heroic landscape in dramatic weather conditions seen from an elevated point of view. Sternfeld clearly rejects this visual language: he documents the uniqueness of the seasons’ changes beyond the sublime and picturesque of traditional landscape pictures from a low point of view and confronts the viewer with the clearly visible effects of man’s intervention in nature.

When it changed
After Sternfeld’s early series had already been informed by a socio-critical attitude, the projection When it changed unmistakably shows the photographer to be a documentarist with great political engagement. When it changed comprises fifty-three portraits of participants in a United Nations conference on climate change in Montreal in 2005. A text with prognoses and statements on climate change by scientists from the last twenty years provides a comment on the persons’ often serious and pessimistic faces.

Treading on Kings
For his project Treading on Kings Joel Sternfeld photographed the protests during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. During this meeting of the eight most powerful industrial nations in the world, which was accompanied by severe clashes between the demonstrators and the police, numerous protesters were wounded and one of the activists, Carlo Giuliani, was killed. Sternfeld’s thirty-three photographs portray the scenes of the confrontation as well as the protesters themselves. Accompanying texts offer statements by various participants of the demonstrations and explain the reasons for their engagement.

Walking the High Line
Walking the High Line (2000–2001) examines landscape as an indicator of ecologic and social transformations from a new perspective. The High Line is an abandoned railroad track in Manhattan, New York, a little over two kilometers long, which the photographer describes as a motific contrast between apparently untouched nature and urban development. While Sternfeld’s earlier series visualize the colonization of nature by man, the relationship is reverted here. Nature has reconquered an urban space, the only sporadically visible rails hinting at the once busy traffic. In the case of Walking the High Line, the socio-political dimension characteristic of all of Sternfeld’s works has produced concrete results: the disused track was transformed into a public park in 2009 not least because of Sternfeld’s successful photographs.

Sweet Earth
The series Sweet Earth from 2006 shows Joel Sternfeld pursuing his photographic investigation of the American social landscape. Informed by the atmosphere of the 1990s, of the period immediately following the collapse of the Communist states, the photographs confront us with models of alternative communities. Texts provide us with information on the social experiments and their political, ecological, or religious reasons. By visualizing historical and contemporary utopias, the artist offers a historical survey spanning from nineteenth-century communities to the counterculture of the 1960s and today’s new forms of living together. By confronting the viewer with heterogeneous life plans, Sternfeld not only fathoms the different values of present-day American society, but also questions the background and development of social norms and conventions.

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