New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 3 February 1 to 7, 2012

Those Were the Days
Joel Sternfeld
First Pictures
Don Burmeister
New York City (#1) by Joel Sternfeld. Source:
Joel Sternfeld, "New York City (#1)" 1976

“First Pictures” is a bit of bottom-of-the-archive bucket scraping on the part of the Luhring Augustine Gallery, but if you are a fan of Joel Sternfeld (and I am) then it provides an interesting swing through the early work of this important, and somewhat overlooked, photographer.

Probably best known for his 1987 book “American Prospects,” a large format, color, American road trip book in the “New Topographic” tradition of Stephan Shore and Joel Meyrowitz, Sternfeld was a bit looser in his vision, but also more human and humorous. (You remember the picture of the fireman looking at pumpkins while a house burns in the background.) Large format detail and a sensitive use of color became hallmarks in several other Sternfeld series. Stranger Passing from 2001 photographed the people who inevitably approach a large format photographer while he is framing his scenes–– in other words a cross section of the American proletariat in all their glory. Campangna Romana documented the intersection of ancient structures and the modern world in the Roman countryside. And Walking The High Line photographed along the High Line in Chelsea and was instrumental in converting this old rail line into the popular park of today.

New Jersey, (#26), May/June 1980 by Joel Sternfeld. Source:
Joel Sternfeld, "New Jersey, (#26), May/June 1980" 19719806

The current show has color pictures made from 1971 to 1980, all from 35mm color sources, probably transparencies. They are nicely printed, small digital prints (I only mention this because several years ago this gallery re-issued over-enlarged, digital prints from the American Prospect series in hideously pumped-up color.) Although few of these pictures are remarkable on their own, it is the story of a young photographer’s growth that emerges. Here the curatorial hand is as important as the photographer’s. Few of the images have been seen publicly before, so it is not certain they represent what Sternfeld would have shown at the time. In hindsight, however, we can see both his influences and the work that presaged his later pictures.

And the influences are varied and strong: Robert Frank, the street photography of Harry Callahan and Gary Winogrand, the vernacular landscapes of Walker Evans and William Eggleston, Joel Meyrowitz, and perhaps more importantly, the color work of Stephan Shore. We see repeatedly matching color fields: two blue coats passing on the street, a boy with green sneakers standing in front of a green suburban house, the intense green of an almost Cindy Shermanesque young woman crossing a midtown street. It is also clear that Sternfeld’s move to a large format camera was instrumental in crystalizing his style. While the 35mm images are colorful and just a bit off-kilter, his later work retains the color and intensity, but places it in a sturdier, and, in the end, more distinctive frame.

In any case, the show is also great fun for reviewers of a certain age – those signs featuring “barefoot coed” waitresses, the guys in leisure suits, and all those porn-star mustaches at the mall. Oh, yes, those were the days.

Joel Sternfeld
First Pictures

Luhring Augustine
531 W 24th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 206 9100

Friday, January 6 to
Saturday, February 4, 2012
Hours: Tue-Sat, 12 to 6