American Photographer Abroad – Joel Sternfeld Breaks Free from his Comfort Zone
Joel Sternfeld strikes me first and foremost as an American photographer. By this I do not refer to his nationality as such, but more as a particular kind of photographer, like Walker Evans and Robert Frank before him. After all, Sternfeld spent most of his photographic career travelling up and down the United States, portraying its people and its landscapes. The strength of his work lies for me in his eye for the mundane, his feeling for irony and his understanding of his native country. I would hazard to say that this is what makes Sternfeld such an excellent photographer, perhaps more so than his groundbreaking method of working in colour.
The series Campagna Romana is different. Last Friday I attended the opening of Sternfeld’s exhibition with this work at the Buchmann Galerie in Berlin. In a way it is a typical continuation of his earlier work. On show are pictures taken in the periphery of Rome ever since the early 1990s until last year. They are reminiscent of both Sternfeld’s series American Prospects and Stranger Passing. The photographer’s encounters with fascinating strangers have been portrayed with a cunning eye for detail and colour. We see Mediterranean landscapes full of classical ruins or medieval town settings. The landscapes in Campagna Romana are neither urban nor rural. Like in American Prospects they show this uncomfortable space in between. The image called ‘Lovers Parking beneath a pyramidal tomb of the second century A.D., Via Appia Antica, Rome, November 1990’ makes me think immediately of another Sternfeld image from the Sweet Earth series. That is, the picture of the Dacha staff building of the Gesundheit! Institute in Hillsboro, West Virginia. The staff building has a similar form to the ruins, the composition is practically the same.
Thus far Campagna Romana is typical for Sternfeld’s way of working. However, the series also depart in two significant ways. First of all, for this project Sternfeld exported his practice abroad. To my knowledge it is the first time he photographed so extensively in another country, before his iDubai project and his reportages When it Changed and Treading on Kings. As opposed to these latter projects abroad, Campagna Romana does not have a political feel to it. Sternfeld made these pictures, because in his own opinion he enjoyed the place and its people. Secondly, he started working with diptychs and triptychs. It is almost like Sternfeld has discovered the use of panorama photography without giving in to using panoramic cameras, or the stitching technique in Photoshop. As the photographer explained, he felt the need to produce diptychs and triptychs for this project, since a single photograph could not encompass the scene in front of him.
Campagna Romana is therefore an interesting body of work, at once recognisably carrying Sternfeld’s mark, but departing significantly from it as well.