JTF (just the facts): A total of 72 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and displayed in the entry, the main gallery space and the smaller back room. All of the works are modern pigment prints, sized roughly 9×13, in editions of 5+2AP. The images were taken between 1971 and 1980. The show is divided into four separate projects:
Nags Head, 1975
At the Mall, New Jersey, 1980
Happy Anniversary Sweetie Face!
A monograph of this body of work has been published by Steidl (here). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Looking at the early pictures of any artist offers the chance to go back to the beginning and see the experiments and false starts that ultimately evolved into a mature style. Inherent in this kind of analysis is a form of selection bias, where we already know what we are looking for, and so select those images that fit our knowledge of what came later. The opportunity to examine four of Joel Sternfeld’s early photographic projects provides just this type of historical pattern matching, where we search the past for signs of the future, discovering visual ideas that were still rough and incompletely formed, but harbingers of later paths and explorations.
My initial impression of these first pictures is that they are looser and more fluid than Sternfeld’s later work. His use of a hand held 35mm camera instead of the view camera he adopted later gives these images much more freedom. Some border on a snapshot aesthetic (especially the ones taken on the streets of New York and Chicago), and even the most formal of the compositions are not as strict and rigid as what would come later. In the context of this more forgiving approach, it’s absolutely possible to see Sternfeld testing the limits of color, refining the idea of a carefully composed self contained narrative, and playing with subtle visual irony and cynicism, sewing the seeds of the stylistic hallmarks of his successful mature work.
There are many color exercises on these walls, both tighter still lifes and broader scenes that use color as a defining element. Chunky red high heels compete with blue woven polyester pants, a green dress balances a yellow cab, a striped bathing suit sets off deep tan lines, and a flash of blond hair piled up in a beehive has a honey glow. More complex color compositions find a boy with green shoes posed outside a suburban home of the same color (set off by bright pink flowers), a woman riding in a sky blue convertible with matching blue sunglasses, and a neon juke box flanked by lingering men and Playboy centerfolds. Sternfeld was clearly examining the play of different colors, and considering how those weights impacted the underlying structure of his pictures.
There are also plenty of stories and narratives here, many with a nuanced undercurrent of skepticism or humor. Boys with Farrah Fawcett t-shirts pop wheelies on their bikes in the driveway, a baby is carried in a laundry basket mixed in with the dirty clothes, a cop questions a ramshackle beach house resident, and an old man in sunglasses peers with trepidation at an ominously dark sky. Many of the images from Sternfeld’s series of mall shots take this further, with lots of men with center-parted feathered hair, moustaches, chest hair, and gold chains posed in odd interior settings, one with an array of wigs and a fluffy dog as props. The beginnings of formality are in evidence in many of these pictures, where compositions are being pared down to their essentials. An emerging political or social edge is also apparent: smoke stacks outside the parking lot of the Tropicana, an oil tank in the window of an empty diner, or a Christina’s World echo facing the Sears Auto Service building.
These early images grew more striking as I gave them more looking time. At first they seemed appropriately uneven, with a good number of misses. But even these weaker outcomes show Sternfeld pushing and trying, and the best of the lot absolutely foreshadow the Sternfeld pictures we all know. I came away extremely impressed with the rigor of Sternfeld’s trial and error in his early years, his inquiries and questions given visual form, his preliminary steps thoughtful and appropriately risky.
Collector’s POV: The prints in the show are priced at $7500 each. Sternfeld’s work is widely available in the secondary markets, particularly his most famous images, which have been printed in editions of 50 or even 100. Recent prices have ranged between $2000 and $100000, with his most famous pictures generally in a zone between $10000 and $30000.