Joel Sternfeld and dissolving utopias (2017)

Published by PYLOT, Issue 06

Time has a strange effect on photography. Images that appear, to their contemporary audience, unimportant or banal, can be treasures to the audience of fifty or even ten years later: we marvel at the clothes people used to wear, the elegant calligraphy of the advertisements of the past. It is rarer, however, when the particular resonance of a set of photographs recurs; when it is initially considered fine and important, and later can seem to present a new set of teachings, its previous value renewed and strengthened, a harbinger of learning from the past to the present. Such is the case with Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, whose value is only reiterated in the sociopolitical landscape of today.

A vast survey of the United States, for which Sternfeld moved with the changing seasons, following autumn as it bloomed across the country, the 1987 photobook is full of large format, pastel-hued images of the North American landscape. Sternfeld pictures the humdrum fantastic: the solar panels floating on a pool like giant lily pads, the elephant collapsed on a sweeping road. He manages to find, again and again, the extraordinary moments, scenes, and colours, that pepper the ordinary. In perhaps his most well-known photograph, a house is burning on the horizon, a team of firemen busy at work to put it out. However, while another photographer might choose to make this the central event of the picture, Sternfeld has moved far enough away that we see, in the foreground, a fireman detached from his team, merrily perusing pumpkins to buy at a farm market, one already tucked under his arm.

On the eve of his recent Beetles+Huxley show, the photographer gave a talk in which he noted an aphorism that he used to spout to impress people as a younger man: “There is a race between the forces of evil and the forces of utopia. Just when utopia is clearly in view, evil wins out.” At the time, it was said for effect, but he explains the phrase has haunted him because, as he has come to see and experience, he was right. “It’s a really close race.”

His photographs bear witness to this ambivalence. Sternfeld has the vision of a nature lover who turns his camera towards the eyesore that spoils the view; he is drawn to incipient change, however ugly or intrusive it may be. He is a master of capturing muddied glory (the russet colours of an autumn landscape with a white hotel block rising out of it) as well as glorified muck (pigs smiling, bathed in golden sunlight, in New York). His strategy seems to be to bring this dichotomy - good with bad, change with stability - into the same frame, for the long-range consideration of the viewer. There are portraits, too, but Sternfeld’s focus is of a larger scale; the portraits occur in the context of the place they’re found, subject to the vast forces of nature and industry. Though utopia doesn’t seem to be able to exist unspoiled in Sternfeld’s landscapes, the blame is not placed on the individual, rather the policies and corporations that construct these monolithic, imposing structures.

Photographers and artists have been seeking to find a formula to represent this dissonance - the coexistence of utopia with dystopia, good with bad - for a long time. In the 19th century the portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron pulled at the thread of idealism, unravelling the perfect focus of classical portrait photography into her more nuanced visualisation of both a person’s outward and inward states. Her images are beatific, but haunting; the depicted are unsmiling, with gazes that explain little, or eyes turned away; their inner life suggested but not revealed. Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights shows prelapsarian Eden on the left and sulphuric, devouring hell on the right. The presentation of both within the same frame seems to present the viewer with a choice, or to show the precarity of our position.

And so we return to Sternfeld, whose images often look like a distilled, pastel-washed version of the Bosch fresco. Like the Dutch painter, he has a maximalist vision, pulled back from the centre of a drama to frame its spectators and the surrounding landscape, too; our eyes take in the calm as well as the storm. This reflects his attitude: at his talk, he explained “I’m fascinated in what has happened in the last 10,000 years.” When a person’s fascination encompasses so wide a range, it is natural that his visual style follows suit. The result is a seemingly more objective, less manipulative record of a particular time and place: an America whose landscape was being slowly transformed by the massive scale of industry and the engorging appetites of the consumer. “Starbucks wasn’t there, but the impulse towards Starbucks was there,” notes Sternfeld.

So, while his images depict the particular plight of 1970s USA, how have contemporary artworks dealt with this divide? As technology advances, more and more artists move away from traditional practices - like 8x10 view cameras - and towards mechanisms like the Internet, publicly hosted CCTV images, and Google Street View. Mishka Henner is one such artist, whose projects using Google Earth - notably Pumpjacks and Feedlots - also present the American landscape. His, however, present a bird’s eye view. In Pumpjacks he shows the scale of oil production in the US to have transformed the topography into a huge circuitboard, while in Feedlots he pictures the staggering lakes of excrement by cattle feedlots, the treating chemicals transforming them into hypnotic, vivid colours. We are compelled at the same time as we are repulsed; we are, after all, being forced to gaze at a man-made lake of shit. As objectivity - or a gesture towards it - deepens, reality only begins to look more nightmarish. The scales seem to tip towards the side of the bad, the dystopia.

The future is, as ever, uncertain, and the last couple of years have felt particularly dispiriting for many. While photojournalism reports from up close, in the thick of individual disasters, it is essential that artists like Sternfeld or Henner continue to step back for a painterly survey of a dissolving utopia. It is important that we are shown, for better or worse, the scale of destruction; we are perhaps inured to photojournalistic images of moments, needing a grander gesture, a wider sweep; as it is, the pages of newspapers often remain a source of distant scandal, while the slow promise of ecological disaster rumbles on behind the factories and shopping malls.

Sternfeld, who treasures nature above all things, has begun to watch the seasons disappear as they are slowly flattened by rising global temperatures. Though climate change was not so pressing an issue during the time he made American Prospects, its threat is present in the photographs, as they bear witness to the devouring mechanisms of industry that begin to dominate. And this is what the photographs do: not lead us to quick conclusions, but bear witness, standing as testimony of a world whose changes will, eventually, swallow it up. Sternfeld’s work captured the beginnings of it, and he asks us - then and now - to notice that the world is ablaze behind us, while we stand in the foreground, buying pumpkins.