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Retrospective of the work of American photographer Joel Sternfeld opens at C/O Berlin
Joel Sternfeld, Ken Robson's Christmas Tree, January 2001©. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and The Friends of the High Line, New York.

BERLIN.- C/O Berlin, International Forum For Visual Dialogues, presents the Retrospective of the work of American photographer Joel Sternfeld, from November 10, 2012 to January 13, 2011.

It is an epic journey across America—off the beaten track of tourist travel and far away from the celebrated national sights. The landscapes, streetscapes, parks, and houses that appear—along with their residents—in Joel Sternfeld’s photographs initially seem unspectacular, harmless, and familiar. Yet the images are unexpectedly powerful. Barely concealed beneath the surface of these images are failed utopias, forgotten fates, and bloody crime scenes. Joel Sternfeld peels away the layers soberly and precisely, bringing to light the limitations of human perception, the lightness of forgetting, and the everyday nature of violence. The explosive power of his pictures lies precisely in their quiet refusal of all sensationalism, revealing a skeptical yet occasionally affectionate view of a shattered nation at the end of the twentieth century.

Sternfeld conceived of his various series as distinct, autonomous wholes. Each one was preceded by intensive background research, and he often presented his work with descriptive accompanying texts. It is only through these texts that viewers can put what they are seeing in context: the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, a religious cult’s farm, or the site of a brutal rape in the middle of Central Park. It is precisely this mode of presentation that lends Sternfeld’s penetrating studies of American society their explosive power. At the same time, his approach spotlights the problem of objectivity and the fact that photography—and pictures in general are always subject to interpretation. “Experience has taught me again and again that you can never know what lies beneath a surface or behind a façade. Our sense of place, our understanding of photographs of the landscape is inevitably limited and fraught with misreading,” Joel Sternfeld once said. His pictures are more than just serious, illustrative, and critical; they are also ironic and humorous—but with a Freudian nervousness that belies the presence of an unpleasant inner truth.

Sternfeld’s photographs of people in their own living environments make reference to the sociological studies of August Sander, as well as to the great photographic surveys of American life by Walker Evans and Robert Frank. And yet with Sternfeld’s photographs, it is no longer possible to definitively classify the people portrayed or to assign them to simple typologies. In Sternfeld’s pictures, punks look staid and conventional, firemen seem reckless, and lawyers appear less than trustworthy. Even idyllic landscapes have a flawed and fragile quality.

In cooperation with the Folkwang Museum, Essen, C/O Berlin will be presenting the first major retrospective of the work of Joel Sternfeld in Germany. The exhibition will comprise his series “American Prospects,” “Sweet Earth,” “Stranger Passing,” and “On this Site.”

Joel Sternfeld was born in 1944 in New York City and studied at Dartmouth College. In the 1970s, together with fellow photographers William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, Sternfeld began to rediscover the use of color in art photography, thereby defining what became known as “New Color Photography.” His work has been shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Tate Modern, London, S.M.A.K., Gent, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur. In 1978 and 1982 he received two Guggenheim Fellowships to create his series “American Prospects,” in 1990/91 he received the Prix-de-Rome. Joel Sternfeld was the winner of the internationally acclaimed Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2004.

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