Friday, February 17, 2012

Joel Sternfeld, First Pictures @ Luhring Augustine

It is interesting how long it has taken for this work to make it out into the world. With the excavating of all things Stephen Shore, I would have thought the unearthing of Sternfeld’s early work would have happened already. The work is certainly strong enough to exist on its own without being seen as simply research material for photo-geeks. Either way it’s at least as strong as Joel Meyerowtiz’s heralded early color street work.

Unlike Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge and Tom Roma, Sternfeld’s early pictures focus on suburbia, where Sternfeld took on malls as a refuge for all kinds of suburban archetypes, from overwhelmed moms, to young men on the make, to senior citizens ambling through their day. It’s fair to say that Sternfeld’s work in suburbia even gives Bill Ownes a run for his money. The pictures from the beach aren’t bad but suffer in comparison to Meyerowitz’s. The New York street work is very tight and claustrophobic, which sounds like a point of view on urban living, but the pictures don’t even come close to the virtuosity of Bruce Gilden’s close-up tabloids of crowded New York street life.

As much as the pictures stand on their own, it’s still nice to see the beginnings of Sternfeld’s more famous work in American Prospects, a body of work that I’ve always seen as being in conversation with Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places. Shore’s pre-large-format work focused myopically on the things that interested him in his immediate surroundings. Sternfield pre-large-format work actively courts narrative with camera aggressively forcing meaning on the world instead of letting it come to him as it always appears to do in American Prospects, but his narrative skill and interest in the lives of suburban Americans shines through. I guess, as is the case with Shore, it is exhilarating to see the energy of youth in Sternfeld’s early work, with the hand-held camera constantly reaching and lurching at the world, trying to put it into some cohesive context. The work isn’t as nearly as successful as his later photographs, but it is certainly exciting in its shortcomings.

Somehow, in the turning to pedestrian places like the mall and resort towns, even in hand-held 35mm mode, you can see a Sternfeld trying to distance himself, or at least find another path from, the then-living luminaries of street photography like Winogrand or Friedlander. The close-up pictures of a classified ad for a monkey for sale almost feel like a farewell to earlier times, when overly dramatic images like pet monkeys commonly found there way into the photographs of Winogrand and Arbus. These early pictures open up an era of photography that would see not only a heightened attention to more everyday locals like American suburbia but also to Photography as a self-referential art that could make pictures of classified ads or even pictures of the pictures in ads and call it photography. After all, in a pre-American Prospects review, Andy Grundberg does describe Sternfeld’s work as a post-modern.

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