Haunting grounds: Joel Sternfeld's crime sights.
Working with near-Luminist attention to light and color, Sternfeld evokes the wide-eyed ethos of romantic landscape photography only to unmask it and the photographic process in general. Playing the beauty of photographic possibility the directness with which the camera presents a scene as "true," against acts o physical and spiritual violence, he asks basic questions about photography's ability to depict or document the real. Simultaneously unmasked is something about America, for "On This Site ..." constitutes a haunting image of the shifting American personality. Detailing what happened in each of the places he shows, Sternfeld's extended titles create a subtle sociopsychodrama.
Sternfeld works out of a deep understanding of both the history of American imagery and the ways that images function in contemporary culture. One of his best-known earlier shots--from the book American Prospects, 1987, an insightful often witty chronicle of the ironies and contradictions of the American experience--is McLean, Virginia, December 1978: in the background, a house in flames, vying for attention with a farm stand in the foreground where a fireman seeming oblivious to the blaze, picks out pumpkins. The orange of the pumpkins plays against the oranges of the flames and of the fireman's coat in a painterl display.
Sternfeld returns to this blend of catastrophe, the everyday, and informed pictorial composition in "On This Site ...," but quietly infuses the new work with a more difficult moral exploration.
The photographs cross the lines between traditional photojournalism, police crime-scene shots, and landscape photography (particularly relevant are Timothy O'Sullivan's views of Civil War battlefields and the 19-century American West), while also touching on popular films such as Kalifornia. Returning to the scene of the crime, Sternfeld inverts the tropes of the whodunit genre by working wit the evidence missing--no body bags, no chalk marks, no blood on the pavement; for the most part, no people. These fundamental absences serve to create an enormous presence, establishing the photographs as silent, meditative memorials
At the same time, the images become dioramalike stage sets on which we project the stockpile of imagery we all lift from our communications culture: the video of the King beating, or of Jessica DeBoers removed from the arms of her adoptiv mother. This is the action we download against Sternfeld's seemingly innocent landscapes. And in a curious kind of countertransference, the self-consciousnes of the photographs--their visual "perfection"--induces a self-consciousness in the viewer. In traditional crime-scene shots the presence of victim and evidenc distances us from the event, reminding us that we are outside it, witnessing it only after the fact. Here, though, the absence of physical evidence, and the artfulness of the photographs, combine to reduce that distance. The angles from which the photographs are taken are often low and wide, giving us an easy path of entry, a way in--as if we were somehow involved in the scene, somehow implicated. Subtly, Sternfeld transfers responsibility--or imposes it.
In American Prospects, where Sternfeld often shot his subjects within man-made environments, there was a disquieting, slightly surrealistic sense of Americans as living somehow on top of the land, in superficial rather than symbiotic relation to it. In the geography of tragedy mapped in "On This Site ..." we see the inverse: it's as if the land were acting back at us. Can evil, the impulse toward violence, somehow collect in the earth, the pressure building until it explodes in riot or crime? Articulating the unseen, Sternfeld pictures our fears, ethereal yet palpable. Looking back simultaneously to America's 19th-century landscape painters and to its Civil War photographers, and to the mingled awe, romance, literalness, and horror that characterized their response to the landscape, he captures a nation at a transitional, melancholy moment--as if a subtler Civil War were still raging, pitting us against each other and against ourselves.