Stranger Passingby Joel Sternfeld
Over a period of 15 years, Joel Sternfeld travelled across America and took portrait photographs that form, in Douglas R. Nickel's words, "an intelligent, unscientific, interpretive sampling of what Americans looked like at the century's end." Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld's subjects are uncannily… See more details below
Over a period of 15 years, Joel Sternfeld travelled across America and took portrait photographs that form, in Douglas R. Nickel's words, "an intelligent, unscientific, interpretive sampling of what Americans looked like at the century's end." Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld's subjects are uncannily normal: a banker having an evening meal, a teenager collecting shopping carts in a parking lot, a homeless man holding his bedding. Using August Sander's classic photograph of three peasants on their way to a dance as a starting point, Sternfeld employed a conceptual strategy that amounts to a new theory of the portrait, which might be termed The Circumstantial Portrait. What happens when we encounter the other in the midst of a circumstance? What presumptions, if any, are valid? What, if anything, can be known of the other from a photographic portrait?
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Portraits are different from other kinds of images, and photographicportraits are more exceptional still. As social animals, we seem to have latentwithin us a primal responsehalf fear, half attractionto the presenceof another in our midst, and a trace of such instinct is brought to the viewingof the representations we make of ourselves. This vestige distinguishes theportrait from, say, a landscape or a still life: the infant chimp will favor amakeshift wire replica of its mother over food or water, to its physicaldetriment, in a display no other kind of object can evoke. In fifteenth-centuryTuscany, certain enemies of the state were tried and punished through use of thepittura infamante; rather than jailing or flogging the culprit's person,his portrait was ordered painted, the likeness hoisted outside the town hall,and a mob would pelt, burn, or crucify it. Iconoclasm, voodoo dolls, andpolitical leaders hanged in effigy all share this order of irrational response,turning on what the anthropologist James George Frazer once called "imitativemagic." At some subterranean level of awareness, a sympathetic reflex confusesthe image and its subject, accepting the effect as surrogate for the cause.
If the traditional portrait derives potency from resemblance, photography'sinvention in the nineteenth century gave imitative magic unimagined newcapacities. Traditional portraiture concentrated on the highest and (sometimes)lowest levels of society. Photography, with its relative affordability and ease,now allowed the middle classes to fill themselves in. The bourgeois multitudetook to the rite ofself-representation eagerly, though not without its own formof supernatural hangover. The novelist Balzac feared sitting for hisphotographic portrait, lest something of his spirit be removed in the process;the sculptor Thorvaldsen is seen in an early daguerreotype furtively making thesign of the "evil eye" to ward off mischief of the spectral sort. Moreover, theworld learned that the very same image demonstrating your success upon thebarricades could later be used to identify and convict you of insurrection.Photography duly assumed its place as the medium of the middle class, but itsrevelatory descriptiveness suffered the fate of working too well: poolsidePolaroids, dental X rays, and our high school yearbooks have only amplified acongenital anxiety that photography is capable of revealing more than we want toknow about ourselves, and not enough of who we think we are.
So when Joel Sternfeld has America sit for its portrait, the operation mightwell be expected to prompt in its intended subjects a measure of curiosity, oreven exhibitionismthe modern appetite for celebrity, no matter how minoror ambiguous. But it might also engender a natural and proper reserve, aformality bred of previous confrontations with census takers, pamphleteers, andother snake-oil salesmen. Off and on for a period of nearly fifteen years,Sternfeld drove around the country, setting up his big view camera andnegotiating weather and other obstacles in order to produce this intelligent,unscientific, interpretive sampling of what Americans looked like at thecentury's end. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the project is that somany lent their mortal souls so gamely to some perfect stranger from New YorkCity.
Sternfeld's pictures are different from other people's. They are easy tounderestimate. They invite speculation, giving us the misleading sense we knowexactly what the photographer is up to. They appear simple, each oneapproximating the look of chance encounter by hiding the many deliberateelements that secure for them their seamlessness. They are unabashedly of theirtime, in their display of body markings, consumer electronics, leisure attire,and vehicle styles. Depending on where you stand, they can be taken as critical,ironic, and political, or earnest, straight-faced, and illustrative. They areoften humorous, but in that Freudian, nervous way that hides some deepertruth.
In a sense, they are not portraits at all. If portraiture historicallymemorializes the appearance of significant figures and their exemplary ornotorious lives, Sternfeld's people have no manifest significance as makers ofhistory. If the portrait works like a proper name, denoting identity so as tocatalyze pre-established recognition, the capital letters of Sternfeld's rollcall only highlight our complete lack of recognition of these individuals asagents: the mechanisms of identification are in place, but the expectedcoincidence of image and reputation is voided. Official portraiture, likenaming, depends on specificity, indeed uniqueness, whereas Sternfeld's peoplepictures treat their human subjects as simultaneously singular and typical. Weaccept that the attorney pausing to read the paper at the corner of Bank andFourth on the way to the laundry is a type, standing in for other lawyers, otherwhite men in their thirties, rather people who read the Times and havetheir clothes professionally laundered and pressed.
The catalogue of types is not a new idea in photography, nor in art orscience. In the late eighteenth century, the Swiss theologian Johann CasparLavater elaborated a comprehensive theory of physiognomics, a system of analysisthat relied upon facial features to define individuals generically, according topersonality type. The concept was simple: physical appearance was believed toreflect true, albeit hidden, moral character, provided one knew how to read aperson's countenance. Lavater supplied the decoder, signaling throughillustrations what a noble forehead should look like, or a criminal earlobe, andmore generally proving that beauty equals virtue and ugliness vice. A closereading of Christ's features showed him to be, not surprisingly, a fairlyupstanding fellow.
The urge to varnish subjective interpretation with objective criteria is ahallmark of modernism, one that continued to motivate discussion for nearly twocenturies after. When the German photographer August Sander began his monumentalproject "People of the Twentieth Century" in the 1920s, the notion that the faceproclaimed the soul had been pretty much discredited, but the belief that aspectand identity were interrelated had not. Sander, shifting the terms, now aimedmore metaphorically to record "the historical physiognomic image of an entiregeneration." "More than anything else, physiognomy means an understanding ofhuman nature," he explained in a 1931 radio lecture. "We recognize people anddistinguish one from another by their appearance. We can tell from appearancethe work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he ishappy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there." Sander'snever-completed "People of the Twentieth Century" scheme was an attempt, overthe course of thirty years, to document the existing social order of the WeimarRepublic through a projected 540-image catalogue of occupational and economictypes. The inventory was to follow an arc, from "farmers," "craftsmen," and "theprofessions" to artists and vagrants, and finally to what Sander termed "thelast people"idiots, cripples, and outcastsprogressing, in duecourse, from rural to urban types. Like in the old medieval Book of Trades,individual identity was eclipsed by the public function and position of thesubject, with attributes bespeaking status (clothes, hairstyles, possessions)acting as visual codes to establish exemplarity. As with the larger society itwas meant to mirror, the individual photograph was subordinate to the collectivewhole of the archive, "a mosaic," Sander argued, "that becomes a synthesis onlywhen presented en masse."
If Sternfeld's effort approximates the typological model more than that ofofficial portraiture, it does so as an acute evolutionary mutation upon Sander'sidea. Indeed, the project hinges upon the potential slippage this model offers:its value as bad science In Sternfeld's case, the critique entails two steps.The photographer first goes to some effort, through a series of formalmaneuvers, to invoke the objective methods of classical documentary. Forinstance, from beginning to end of Sternfeld's series, the distance of camera tosubject remains virtually constanta safe and respectful distance,signifying descriptiveness and taxonomic efficacy. All of the subjects hereaddress the lens, making eye contact with us, and thus seemingly affording asystematic standard for comparative analysis. The participants stand (or sit)still, displaying themselves in a condition of stasis. (Lavater advised thatphysiognomy could only be read from features at rest: action or emotionconfounds the essential with the temporary.) Subjects are presented, we surmise,in situ, in the setting to which they might be considered indigenous, withnothing to suggest the photographer has in any way tampered with the evidentialpurity of the environment as found. Except for the arrangement of the poses, allelse points to the happy discovery and preservation of a specimen uncovered inthe field.
However, in the second stroke, the trappings and expectations of documentaryprocedure get deranged. In Sander's universe, a farmer has to look like afarmer, his beggar has to look unemployed. Sternfeld's investment banker orUpper East Side maid may perfectly match our stereotypes of such characters, butthen along comes a young derelict in torn jeans and a ski cap, who turns out tobe a website designer. The guy with the creepy doll, or the sidewalk womantoting a rabbit-what social types do these personify?
Sternfeld's version of the Sander Arbeitsloser trumpets a pair ofrather elegant red leather sneakers, hardly a universal attribute of thehomeless. These specimens seem to assert their unwillingness to be made whollyrepresentative, to subsume their individuality to the system. Free-floatingsigns of disturbancethe closure on a skirt that gaps open, theincongruously small barbeque grill on the groundoccur frequently enough tomake us distrust the information as forensically cogent, and so disconcert therigor of the sampling as a whole. The Sternfeld bait-and-switch plays uponexpectations of physiognomic thought in order to demonstrate how unreliable suchexpectations can be.
Sternfeld's sociology therefore throws the question back at us, asking us todecide what we are willing to assume, on the basis of outward appearance, aboutthe person standing next to us in the elevator. Some of the clues here makesense, others mislead, and yet others remain ciphers. But this documentaryskepticism on the part of the artist doesn't mean the project isn't sayingsomething profound about the time or the place it glosses. Before beginning thisseries, Sternfeld had invested himself primarily in landscapeimagesspecifically, images of sites marked by culture, such as roadsides,the suburbs, or scenes of crimes The landscape motive remains extant in thesepictures too: compare them with examples of the dominant postwar trend, whereRichard Avedon, Irving Penn, Chuck Close, Thomas Ruff, and other portrait makershave increasingly isolated their figures from the world through the evacuationof meaningful background. Sternfeld's are people in landscapes; they makeconscious reference to the eighteenth-century conversation piece, in whichpainters like Thomas Gainsborough would situate clients in a location redolentwith socioeconomic and emblematic association (fertile fields for the newlymarried couple, e.g.). Some of the categorical in-between-ness of Sternfeld'sproject comes from the imprinting upon of a lower middle class and an uppermiddle class. America's poor wear the T-shirts and baseball caps of the former;its rich consume the bottled water and designer labels of the latter. Theunavoidable inference of the selection is that, for most of us, identity haslargely, finally, successfully become an issue of consumer choice. To the extentthat individuals manage to distinguish themselves from one another publicly, itis mainly through the semiotics of their selections from the image menu of latecapitalism.
By virtue of their iconography, their semi-acquiescent self-arrangement forthe camera, their struggle to stay fully in character, the people in Sternfeld'scross section suggest the distinct possibility that we may all be playing roles,roles that happen to be identical to our lives. As the method actor knows, thetrick is to so immerse yourself in the part that you forget you are acting. At amoment when our national identity may mean nothing other than proximity to thegenerative source of a growing global omniculturewhen the verities offamily, religion, and country go begging for lack of adequatereplacementthese pictures of Americans might show more than they or wecare to see. Yet they are by no means nihilistic. Sternfeld doesn't make hispeople heroic, but his patent empathy for his sittershis regard for theirhumanitysuggests the possibility that, as individuals, we can at momentstranscend the limitations of ambient social determinism.
We find in Sternfeld's report some provisional solutions to the problem ofremaining human. We fear and are attracted to these people, respond to thepsychodynamics of their staring at us, take pleasure in the opportunity to stareback in relative safety, and may even find ourselves moved. These are picturesthat fulfill the purpose of art, which is not to record, nor even to createbeauty for its own sake, but to redeem us. It is a philosophical task, to aid,in however indirect or partial fashion, our understanding of what it means toexist in the here and now, to show us something bigger than ourselves, to let ussee ourselves from above and maybe get a glimpse of the script. When thathappens, it seems like magic.
Excerpted from Stranger Passing by Joel Sternfeld. Copyright © 2001 by Melcher Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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