BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Joel Sternfeld

The Photographer's Gallery, London, UK

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BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

In 2001 Joel Sternfeld published Walking the High Line, a photographic study of a derelict elevated railway that runs for a mile and a third along the western edge of New York. Abandoned in the late 1970s, the High Line hovers two storeys above the city, a forgotten commercial conduit: a metallic appendix long bypassed. Every spring, however, the High Line comes back to life, host to an astonishing variety of plant life, a bucolic ribbon fluttering across the city. Sternfeld photographed its eight acres of surreal parkland over the course of a year, documenting its secret snaking through a hinterland of warehouses, apartment buildings and blaring billboards. The project reveals an undergrowth of tangled dichotomies that flourish in Sternfeld's work, not least the easy oppositions of nature and culture, rus and urbe, of which he is keenly aware: 'it gets a little obvious, you know, this world against this. A little too on the nose.'

Sternfeld walks the line, glides in airy pastoral above New York, trailing memories of other confusions of countryside and metropolis. From William Wordsworth and Charles Baudelaire through Walter Benjamin and the Surrealists to the Situationist dérive, a determined post-Romantic tradition trudges city streets and refashions the urban as rural. The works collected for this show, drawn from American Prospects (1987) and Stranger Passing (2001) (respectively, though inadequately, 'landscapes' and 'portraits'), mine another, American, inheritance, but are similarly unwilling to see the boundaries between traditional categories as anything other than territories in themselves: new spaces for a (potentially) democratic vision of America. In a sense there is a recognizable American Sublime at work here, but it is less Ansel Adams' monumentalism (weighed down with 18th-century notions of discovery, of vistas) than the Sublime of Mark Twain or Jack Kerouac: a walker's Sublime (which is also that of Walker Evans).

American Prospects is a wandering work (eight years across the USA in a camper van): a collection not of landscapes but simply, though ravishingly, of land. A previously unshown photograph, Alaska, 1984, depicts a yard full of gutted cars and trucks, machinery in various stages of repair and disarray, against a forested background. The tenuous balance of nature and culture is decidedly in place, but it is the ground that demands attention: an admixture of stone and soil that is barely a road. There is something insistent about the way this sort of surface reappears in Sternfeld's landscapes. It is there again in Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979; the collapsed animal and a gaggle of pursuers seem the merest (if dramatic) excuse for a richly detailed study of road surface, field edge and carefully stacked lumber.

Some images propose a more straightforwardly readable scenography. McLean, Virginia, December 1978 is like something Jeff Wall would spend six months choreographing: a burning house with attendant fire engine; in the foreground, at the McLean Farm Market, a fireman nonchalantly buys a pumpkin (it turns out he's the fire chief, wandering away from an exercise, not an emergency). In the Wet'n'Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980 holiday-makers lounge about, frolic in the fake waves, ascend a towering slide, all apparently oblivious to the extraordinary multi-greyed cloudscape that looms above them: the natural sublime rendered oddly invisible, failing to compete with the advertised Aqualympics.

In his essay on 'Nature' (1844) Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that 'the beauty of nature must always seem unreal and mocking, until the landscape has human figures, that are as good as itself'. Sternfeld's portraits seem to be in search of such figures. They suggest an obvious antecedent in August Sander's taxonomy of the 'People of the Twentieth Century' (begun in the 1920s): a democratic typology of bankers, web designers, hitch-hikers and the homeless, uniformly distant from the camera, addressing the photographer in a fragile effort to appear themselves, to assume their proper natures. The scenery, it seems, has other ideas. Most dramatically, A Man on the Banks of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, August 1985 stands in front of an expanse of trees and water, and seems to drift free of it like a sitter before a 19th-century studio backdrop, shuttling theatrically between proprietor and pioneer, between homeland and frontier. Sternfeld's subjects inhabit spaces that are both theirs and not theirs, that are simultaneously there and not there (just as their assumed characters are real and unreal, subject to slippage back to nature). Like walkers in the floating garden of the High Line, they are fortunate to find themselves here, for once, in the right place.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.

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