New York

Joel Sternfeld

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

In a passage in his journal dated February 5, 1855, Henry David Thoreau asserted, “In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” The thirteen large-scale color photographs in this exhibition chronicle the weather and the characters of the day in and around a single meadow in Northampton, Massachusetts, from July 29, 2005, to April 20, 2007. The site, famously depicted in a heroic Thomas Cole landscape that was painted in 1836 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characterized by a small loop of water (called an oxbow) that juts out from the Connecticut River. It encircles a series of meadows, and similarly flat land extends away from the river’s outer banks.

At this site Joel Sternfeld has catalogued, with Thoreauvian attention to detail, the variety and bounty of what the photographs’ titles identify as the East Meadows. In these images, one glimpses the twisting silhouettes of denuded trees framed against a pink-gray March sky; a horizontal expanse of melting late-winter snow placidly reflecting the clouds massed above it; steam rising off puddles of water as the Earth, in spring, returns to life; and the tracks of truck wheels rolling off into the distance, bathed in an orange summer glow. Cole described the view from nearby Mount Holyoke as the “grandest prospect in North America,” but Sternfeld observes this place with an unsentimental eye. And, unlike his series “American Prospects,” 1978–86, which deliberately charts human incursions into the landscape, these photographs see Sternfeld largely ignoring the greatest of such intrusions—nowhere, for example, does one find Interstate 91, which runs north-south across the oxbow. (In a related catalogue, however, additional images depicting abandoned campsites, roads cutting through cornfields, and more truck tracks appear.) In this sense, the photographs in “Oxbow Archive” continue the placidity that characterized “Sweet Earth,” the series, mostly made in the mid-’90s, depicting American utopian communes that Sternfeld exhibited at this gallery in fall 2005.

To see this cycle of days and seasons unfolding ninety miles west of Boston would chasten any urbanite; while Thoreau and his peers were intimately familiar with this landscape and its intervals of growth and decay, many people today would be hard-pressed to identify its plant species. That such knowledge is now alien to a large share of the population highlights the disconnect between humans and their environment that is causing problems far greater than can be understood in two years’ study of one small patch of land. One at a time, these pictures prompt humility before nature’s variegated plenitude. In aggregate, as they chart how and when the seasons change, they bear witness to inexorable forces that will fundamentally alter such patterns in the future.

This is not to suggest such concerns prompted Sternfeld’s photographic journal, though by including the word archive in his title one is given some license to think so. It is, however, to state that the vocation of careful attention evidenced by these works prompted one viewer to attempt such diligent watchfulness of the world around him. The pictures themselves, with their flat, thin, dispersed northern light and their carefully considered compositions, are arresting, and function well both within Sternfeld’s oeuvre and as their own aesthetic statement.

Brian Sholis