First Pictures by Joel Sternfeld

Steidl, $78.00 (320 p), ISBN-10: 3869303093, ISBN-13: 978-3869303093 

Joel Sternfeld, along with several other artists like William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, was part of a movement to help establish the seriousness of color photography within the documentary and fine art genres.

This handsome collection brings together Sternfeld’s early color photography (taken from 1969-1980) and includes many compelling images that have not been widely seen until now. The shots collected here predict the mature artist of major bodies of work such as American Prospects (1987), Walking The High Line (2002), and Sweet Earth (2006) yet also contain some interesting differences to these later series.

Dozens of lavishly reproduced images allow the reader to see the roots and continuity of Sternfeld’s craft: his careful formalism, his ironic sensibility, and his ability to capture a moment that blends pathos with wry social commentary.  

Egg Harbor, New Jersey, 1972 from 'First Pictures' by Joel Sternfeld, published by Steidl

But perhaps surprisingly for people familiar with Sternfeld’s oeuvre, the volume also contains a good amount of street photography (which he left behind in 1976), images captured with 35mm cameras, and highly saturated vibrant colors. 

His later and more widely known work is dominated by the necessarily deliberate approach of large format photography and the intentional use of non-primary hues. Throughout the book's four subsections these key similarities and differences of Sternfeld’s later photography are apparent. 'Happy Anniversary Sweetie Face' brings together street scenes, interiors, and spontaneous people shots taken between 1971 and 1980. The photos in 'Nags Head' were all taken in two summer months of 1976 in a North Carolina Beach resort. 'Rush Hour' showcases candid street portraiture of people in motion mostly in the urban centers of New York and Chicago.

The most thematically cohesive of the collections, 'At the Mall' (1980) contains images taken in and around shopping centers, and anticipates other critiques of American consumer culture such as Brian Ulrich’s recent Is This Place Great or What?  Not all of the work is of even quality, and several images (in 'Rush Hour' especially) seem repetitive or downright boring. Thankfully, a frame of deep complexity and beauty is never more than just a few pages away.

9th Street, New York City, 1974 from 'First Pictures' by Joel Sternfeld, published by Steidl

Because of Sternfeld's consistent ability to capture a telling moment with surprising yet precise composition, his tightness of palette within frames illustrating his painterly understanding of color, and his Robert Frank-like ability to capture revealing moments of Americana, this collection deserves a close look. First Pictures offers many lovely, mysterious, and captivating pictures and it provides insight into the development of one of America’s true masters of color photography.

'Joel Sternfeld - First Pictures' is available on Amazon.com 


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC  

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 35
bibiki78
By bibiki78 (10 months ago)

introducing art to dpreveiw i like!

0 upvotes
mjglantz
By mjglantz (May 20, 2012)

It's certainly true that this material is, at its core, social commentary above all else. But documentary without visual impact would not merit much critical acclaim (bland or tasteless documentary is not in short supply). For me, the visual component of this work is its real appeal. I'm not well versed in art photography, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about it that this little news item provided.

0 upvotes
tessl8d
By tessl8d (May 20, 2012)

I passed on commenting after I saw these 3 pics about a month ago, I'm glad I checked out his other stuff though. His general intent is to provide a social documentary styled approach. I like his stuff though,reminds me of a family album where everyone is family and anyone's likely to be included.

0 upvotes
rfsIII
By rfsIII (May 15, 2012)

When you look at the pictures, you need to send your mind back 40 or 50 years and imagine what controversy he must have created with these shots.
At the time, Ansel Adams was a god, black and white photography was king, and color photography was looked down on as something that was only fit for advertising. Real art photographers just did NOT shoot color. It was an unbreakable law—and the art world takes its laws very seriously. The savagery and grudge-holding of art critics make prison guards look like nursery school teachers.
The fact he was able to get respect with his color work was a breakthrough. Now everyone does it so it seems commonplace, but when he was shooting, it was revolutionary.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
mjglantz
By mjglantz (May 14, 2012)

My goodness, who are these people who are commenting on this material saying it's "not art"? How odd.

Just to examine a single artistic element of the three photos presented here, consider the staggering skill and creative expression displayed in his use of lines, angles and perspective, and how he uses color to amplify the impact of these. And that's just what jumps out in a few moments of observation. Art doesn't communicate all of its secrets in the first 20 milliseconds.

0 upvotes
AlexBakerPhotoz
By AlexBakerPhotoz (May 6, 2012)

photojournalism = f/8 and be there

0 upvotes
Tiffles
By Tiffles (May 6, 2012)

Saw the Folkwang Museum exhibition, excellent stuff.
He's kind of the American Martin Parr for me.

To some of the earlier posters:
"There are some people that if they don't know, you can't tell them."
--Louie Armstrong

2 upvotes
CaseyComo
By CaseyComo (May 5, 2012)

Take a look at his gallery here:

http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/#

I won't blather about it, but I like a lot of these images.

2 upvotes
jimkahnw
By jimkahnw (May 3, 2012)

Others in this thread asked how does Sternfeld's images differ from the average snap shooter? Why is a dull, gone-to-seed urban image art? A baby in a laundry basket--why is that art? Cut-off the mother's head could be just sloppy photography; had I made the shot I would have included the mom. The girl in slippers and jump rope in cheesey pose, perhaps this is a social comment; but is it art? Why are these images centered? The self-appointed "experts" declare a body of work "art," and their visually illiterate sycophants concur. The rest of us puzzle and wonder what is the photographer seeing that we should see? In photography, documentary can be mistaken for art. If an image informs, but does not uplift can it be art? Wegee's gritty news pictures 80 years later put on the wall get called art. Zoe Strauss's recent show at the Phily Art Museum was a disturbing document that left me depressed; it wasn't art for me. Compare these images to those by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliot Erwitt.

2 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (May 4, 2012)

The mom's head was cut off to avoid action by a state child protection agency for endangerment of a baby at obvious risk of a brain-dashing fall. Less likely, the chivalrous photographer was in such a hurry to help the woman carry the laundry that he could not frame the shot well. Even less likely, the artiste told the woman he'd taken the picture, and offered her a share of the royalties, but she modestly refused.

One reason why artsy photos tend to consist of gritty places, poor people, or nameless kids is that other places may be inaccessible and the subjects uncooperative. You can't lumber into a Central Park West penthouse and snap picture of the rich and famous in their pijamas as they fight over the marmelade spoon. Slums, paupers, and derelicts never knew privacy in the first place, or are more worried about eviction marshalls, cops, dealers, or crooks than a camera.

It's an irony, though, that people will swoon over photos of places or people they'd shun in life.

1 upvote
plasnu
By plasnu (May 5, 2012)

His pictures are art, at least for you, because they let you think what the art is. If they are utterly boring, you wouldn't even have spent some time to comment on this.

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
1 upvote
CaseyComo
By CaseyComo (May 8, 2012)

I think you are right. HCB and EE were known Leica shooters, ergo, their work is art by definition. ;)

0 upvotes
Jackplug
By Jackplug (May 3, 2012)

"And the colors! The colors of that beautiful fabric! I have never seen anything like it in my life!" They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.

A child, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage.

"The Emperor is naked," he said.

Undoubtably you have to see his work in context!

0 upvotes
plasnu
By plasnu (May 3, 2012)

I'll buy one. Thanks.

0 upvotes
Russell Fielding
By Russell Fielding (May 2, 2012)

Struggling to see much of interest from those three photos. Maybe they look better larger. The last two especially could've been taken by anyone with a compact camera to hand. They're snaps to me. Sure the carelessness of carrying a baby like that is semi-arresting but is the only thing that makes the picture interesting. The first one of the buildings shows perhaps some understanding of composition but the content of the photo, to me, seems humdrum. My points are not to diss the guy so much as to suggest that on the basis of those three photographs the majority of people on this website could have taken similar or better shots. And following on from that is it not luck that some photographers become famous and some don't? Or perhaps these are unrepresentative of the guy and his other stuff is far superior.

0 upvotes
BartyLobethal
By BartyLobethal (May 3, 2012)

It may be that the work seems better in context, ie when seen with with a greater number of other images. Then the images can be seen as part of a body of work with a consistent approach and style. This still might not be to your liking, but if the photographer sets out with a definite outcome in mind and achieves it, then they are in control of their craft and the rest is about personal taste.

Having written that, I also find the latter two images to be a bit "snapshotty". I can find things to like about the first one - the formal composition, the figure providing both scale and a sense of space or emptiness, even the subject matter. Some places are banal, dreary, desolate, ugly. This should also be recorded along with the sunsets and the models, mountains and motorbikes.

Comment edited 41 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Russell Fielding
By Russell Fielding (May 3, 2012)

Hi Barty, thanks for your thoughts.

Oh I agree re the worth of photographing the 'banal, desolate, dreary, ugly' as well as the traditionally beautiful stuff but is the mere snapping of the everyday 'art' that deserves publication in a book? Or just documenting a certain time and place with a mere click of the shutter. To me there is no artistry with the second two photos. There is arguably more on the average Flickr or deviantart page. Where is the effort, the composition, the thought process? I like what you say about the first shot although I do think it's bigging it up a bit. The white border encourages the viewer to think 'this is art', the guy providing the perspective could have just been accidental, the 'historical' nature of the photo always adds a certain something that a similar shot today would not (until the future).

You might be right about the context thing, although consistency of style and approach don't in themselves confer quality.

0 upvotes
leblase
By leblase (May 2, 2012)

I'm sorry to read some earlier comments.
Sternfeld's images combine humour, discovery of a land, of a country, of what mankind leaves after its pasage, poetry and an awesome mastery of the craft of photography.
Like AbrasiveReducer, I enjoy pretty much the picture with the baby, so cannily framed.

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
Jay Martin
By Jay Martin (May 2, 2012)

These shots were taken during a time when you were not looked at as being a pervert just because you take a picture of a child. How sad we've become as a society. The first picture I just don't get, the others are great.

1 upvote
audijam
By audijam (May 2, 2012)

People find ways to manipulate, invade, sabotage others' feelings, emotions and even bodies. unfortunately some used cameras and lenses to achieve their sickened goals...

sad...very sad~~~

1 upvote
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (May 2, 2012)

A derelict property with a stange guy shuffling by, a babe in peril, a slipper-clad minor in a tease pose. Honestly, how does one take such shots without getting into all sorts of trouble?

0 upvotes
Hugo808
By Hugo808 (May 2, 2012)

You establish a rapport with the people before you take the photo, bit of charisma required but no harm in trying. Might be harder these days though.

0 upvotes
BartyLobethal
By BartyLobethal (May 2, 2012)

The fact that you think a child hamming it up for the camera is adopting a 'tease pose' says something revolting about you, not the photographer or the child.

3 upvotes
michaelrz
By michaelrz (May 2, 2012)

I think I've spotted some shadow noise in the third picture.
Can you please upload the RAW file?

6 upvotes
gigabloke
By gigabloke (May 2, 2012)

Ha ha ha. Very good!

0 upvotes
CaseyComo
By CaseyComo (May 5, 2012)

Best comment ever.

0 upvotes
Tape5
By Tape5 (May 2, 2012)

'' .. people familiar with Sternfeld’s oeuvre ''

I love it when DPR talks dirty.

Donnez-nous un peu plus ...s'il vous plaît.

2 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (May 2, 2012)

Cool ... Joel is my son Max's instructor at Sarah Lawrence College!

0 upvotes
makofoto
By makofoto (May 2, 2012)

Max's photography web site:

http://maxjacobkoiwai.com/portfolios/82441-damaged-negatives

Very Different ... Very Imaginative ... Very Different ... No sharp photos of wrinkly old men ... No pretty pictures ........

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
4 upvotes
bryPT
By bryPT (May 2, 2012)

Makofoto, your son's work is excellent! Very cool stuff.

0 upvotes
Andreas Stuebs
By Andreas Stuebs (May 3, 2012)

@makophoto - in the colour pictures you can see the Sternfeld "School" - the others are very much unique. very nice!

0 upvotes
jackpro
By jackpro (May 2, 2012)

introducing art to dpreveiw i like!

4 upvotes
plasnu
By plasnu (May 3, 2012)

Good move for NO HDR person like me.

1 upvote
Photomonkey
By Photomonkey (May 2, 2012)

@AbrasiveReducer, I too like Sternfeld but I also like Shore and Eggleston. The first image could have been made by Eggleston.

0 upvotes
AbrasiveReducer
By AbrasiveReducer (May 1, 2012)

Always liked his photos, especially the fireman. Never understood Stephen Shore or William Eggleston but I get the baby in the basket.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 35