“Long ago it must be / I have a photograph / Preserve your memories / They’re all that’s left of you” – Simon and Garfunkel
(click here to listen to it while reading this post)
When I was in Berlin around the New Year I visited the unofficial photography museum c/o Berlin. There, they had a great overview exhibition of the works of Joel Sternfeld. Here, three elements present in his body of work that got me thinking.
While a fire is blazing in the background, we see a fireman picking out a pumpkin at the farmer’s market – Sternfeld makes firemen seem reckless. One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the retrospective of Sternfeld’s work is the mix of emotions that are behind them and the mix of emotions they evoke. Serious, beautiful, ironic, critical, funny – all at once. The hope and demise of the American dream are shown in one image that seems to fit in the spirit of the 70s but is also still relevant.
“Joel Sternfield peels away the layers soberly and precisely, bringing to light the limitations of human perception, the lightness of forgetting, and the everyday nature of violence.” (Mirko Nowak & Karin Hanster, c/o Berlin)
Sternfeld was one of the first photographers to use color photographs in artistic photography and take it out of an ‘advertisement-only’ context. The picture above is particularly striking because of the bright pink blazer the girl is wearing (although that she goes shopping with her pet rabbit is also pretty cool).
This photo may not seem particularly important or stunning. That is, until you know that a 14-year old black boy was murdered because he called a white woman ‘baby’. Sternfeld presents a lot of narrative in his photographs that is overlooked unless you know what you are looking at. This gets me thinking about two things:
1) what are the limitations of human perception?
2) where is the line between understanding art at first glance, and having to delve into it to give it meaning?
Image credits: the three photographs are all taken by (none other than) Joel Sternfeld himself.