10. July 2012
Photography at the Albertina
Art between chance, arrangement and documentation
Bright orange pumpkins in the midst of a dreary looking landscape, enormous parking lots with shopping carts and a woman dressed in trendy clothing with a rabbit in tow. The America being presented by American photographer Joel Sternfeld in a retrospective at the Albertina dedicated to him is not unknown, but it certainly is a very poetic one.
Sternfeld’s poetry stems mainly from his use of colour in the photographs. Ultimately, this is also what makes his photographs appear both composed and authentic and creates a charm that the viewer finds difficult to evade. Often colours prevail in similar shades, are of equal density and intensity. They can be found in the individuals portrayed, objects and in nature. And together they deploy a poetic power.
The orange in fire and in pumpkinsSternfeld’s colour compositions were mainly inspired by William Eggleston and the theories of the Bauhaus movement. This is particularly visible in his series of photographs with the title American Prospects, for which Sternfeld followed the seasons in the direction of the south. Here, the viewer is, for instance, confronted with a young boy standing in front of a green house, wearing green tennis shoes or sees a burning house in front of which orange pumpkins are being sold. The latter is a painting, which is a product of the interplay between calculation and chance. Just as the photographer passed through this region on his journey, firemen were burning down an old house. Sternfeld stood out in the cold waiting on that autumn day and finally succeeded in making this photograph.
One reason for his perseverance and the great care with which he approaches his motives was probably the fact that as a young photographer he could only afford to make two photographs a day. Moreover, he worked with a large-format camera which resulted in a static composition. And this was different from earlier days when he would move through the streets with a miniature camera.
At the limits of photographyThe Albertina is showing Sternfeld’s early photographic works for the first time. These pieces were created at the beginning of the seventies – at a time when a photographer working with colour to pursue artistic goals was still considered to be exotic if not crazy. However, the colour-obsessed artist did not give up and is today seen, along with Eggleston as one of the leading representatives of “New Color Photography”.
But also in other series Sternfeld always ventured out to the limits of what is generally viewed as being art photography. In his conceptually oriented series of American sites of crime he merges images with texts. While the shots, for instance, depict an empty congress hall or a tree in a park, the texts added next to them recall the murder of a young woman or a resolution of congress to classify blood donations as being insignificant for the transmission of the HIV virus. It is primarily the texts that lend the images their significance or reveal the truths and stories hidden in them.
Captured on filmYet also in his photographs of the participants of a climate conference Sternfeld follows an expanded path of photography that brings his work closer to political and social involvement. His photographs of congress participants are far more than just simply portraits. They were taken precisely at the moment in which it became clear to those involved that global warming can no longer be reversed. Reactions such as despair, concern and shock can be read in the faces. And it is certainly a concern that the photographer seems to be sharing with the participants. Sternfeld has again and again selected changes in nature – be it through the change of seasons or human interventions – as a theme. But also social and political ideas play a significant role in his work. Just like the series from the year 2006 in which Sternfeld addressed the visualization of contemporary utopias. Only one of a total of ten series and with the 130 photographs shown in the exhibition these are certainly quite extensive. In any case all ten are worth seeing – each of them in their own colourful way.
Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, 2012