Joel Sternfeld at Luhring, Augustine Gallery

Detail ImageJoel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979 from American Prospects, digital c-print, 48″ x 58-1/2″; courtesy Luhring, Augustine Gallery

* * *

The photographs of Joel Sternfeld look like the work of any number of contemporary photographers. His pictures of the American landscape, its inhabitants and its prospects (to take a thematic cue from the title of the main series on exhibit) bring to mind those of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, all prominent figures on the international scene. Like them, Mr. Sternfeld takes big, color photos of panoramic vistas teeming with meticulous detail.

The settings are mundane and literally all over the map: a back road in Washington State, the outskirts of Phoenix, an aquatic theme park in Orlando, a picnic area close to the Great Salt Lake. What occurs in the photographs is less mundane; it can be horrific (the aftereffects of a tornado), funny (a sprinkler is the center of the known universe for one homeowner) and inexplicable (that back road in Washington? It’s blocked by an exhausted elephant). A distinct sense of theater–of distance, really–marks the work: Deadpan but curious, Mr. Sternfeld steps back and takes it all in, setting aside any agenda that might obscure the view.

Though at first glance you might think that Mr. Sternfeld shares the chilly contrivance and numbing ennui typical of Mr. Crewdson, Mr. Struth and other peers (actually, they’re his followers: The American Prospects series dates from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s), the longer you spend with Mr. Sternfeld, the less you see of his aloofness. In its place is a surprising, refreshing openness. The thin veneer of detachment barely disguises the wealth of contradictory emotions embedded in the images. The photographs are meditations, various and awesome, on the complexity of a land and its people.

So ignore the claims made by Mr. Sternfeld’s supporters about how his subject is “the contamination of paradise” or about how he’s moved the medium forward by “corrupting the purity of photography,” or about how American Prospects documents an “out of control America … ever closer to the abyss.” Mr. Sternfeld has less in common with Crewdson, Struth and Co.–the crowd that mistakes artifice for invention and nihilism for disinterest–than with Walker Evans and Garry Winogrand, artists whose gift for concentrating the world is inseparable from a respect for the integrity of their subjects. Mr. Sternfeld’s photographs, unsettling and expansive, remind us that one of the chief virtues of art is its ability to slip out from under cant.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 1, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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