PRINT March 1994


A TREE IN A PARK, a section of road, a little girl’s bedroom, a billboard. All of them eerily familiar. Looking at these sites, I think: I have been here before, I know this place. But where is it? What is it? I have the uncanny sensation that something is missing. Narrative? Evidence? The story is found on a wall tag: I’m seeing the weeping crab apple tree where Robert Chambers murdered Jennifer Levin in Manhattan’s Central Park, the spot on Foothill Boulevard where Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, the Iowa bedroom where Jessica DeBoers lived with adoptive parents for two and a half years until returned to her birth parents by court order, a billboard outside Petaluma pleading for information about the kidnaping of Polly Klaas. I’m looking at Joel Sternfeld’s new and revised American landscape, and the longer I look the more complicated these seemingly simple scenes become. Sternfeld’s deadpan (deadly, panoramic) approach in the series, titled “On This Site . . . ,” becomes a subtle collision/collusion in which esthetic beauty torques against the facts of life.

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 of 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 painterly 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 19th-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 with 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 adoptive mother. This is the action we download against Sternfeld’s seemingly innocent landscapes. And in a curious kind of countertransference, the self-consciousness of the photographs—their visual “perfection”—induces a self-consciousness in the viewer. In traditional crime-scene shots the presence of victim and evidence 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 responses 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.