Pioneer photographer, alum returns to teach

by MICHAEL RIORDAN | 6/27/13 10:00pm

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"At a certain moment, I realized I was having the worst moment of my young life and the best," Sternfeld said.

Sternfeld had been suffering from an existential crisis.

"Fifty-two years ago, I was a freshman at this college, and I was a mess," he said. "I was the most confused, ungainly, adolescent, immature freshman you can imagine."

Sternfeld spent his youth and young adulthood immersing himself in nature. Growing up in an artistic family in New York City, he discovered that photography could capture settings that filled him with wonder. He is now among America's most prominent photographers and one of the earliest artists to explore color photography. He is arguably the first to accompany his photos with extended text.

Returning to his alma mater 50 years later as a Montgomery Fellow, Sternfeld is teaching a studio art course this summer that directly addresses one of his major concerns as an artist: the photographer as author.

The class, "Words and Images," grapples with the "notion that far from being true, all photographs are authored," Sternfeld said.

"The minute you put a frame to the world, the minute you decide to photograph this, and not this, you are expressing an opinion, and why not in writing tell you my opinion?" he said. "Then you're free as the audience to decide, Do I look at what he's saying, do I believe what he's saying, do I care what he's saying or not?'"

Photographers will no longer have to hide behind "the guise of truth," and viewers will be forced to closely examine the relationship between image and text, he said.

The class has discussed what constitutes "color," and Sternfeld encouraged them to take pictures that do "not take color for granted," Elena Zinski '15 said.

"The focus of this class seems to be challenging us to take pictures that tell a story, and part of that involves using words that aid the picture," she said.

For such a famous photographer, Zinski said Sternfeld rarely mentions his work in class.

In one of his most well-known books, Sternfeld photographed the sites where acts of violence had taken place both ordinary and conventionally beautiful locations and juxtaposed them with researched accounts of the crime, which would not have been evident without the accompanying text.

"The guise of objectivity that photographs parade around seems to have transferred over to the text," Sternfeld said.

At a lecture on Tuesday in Filene Auditorium, Sternfeld presented some of his work, offering commentary about the themes and his use of color.

Sternfeld said he is drawn to the dynamic between utopian and dystopian environments. He added that he largely sees America positively, unlike some photographers of his generation.

"I always have to ask myself, Where exactly is better?'" he said.

At the lecture, he discussed his most notable book of photography, "American Prospects" (1987), which documents his travels throughout the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s. Its photos reflect Sternfeld's complex feelings toward America and frame beauty in strange places.

Some photos, such as "Approximately 17 of 41 Sperm Whales that Beached and Subsequently Died, Florence, Oregon," a sea landscape with beached whales, and "McLean, Virginia, December 1978," which depicts a firefighter purchasing a pumpkin while a house burns behind him, challenge the viewer by placing a grotesque spectacle in an otherwise pastoral scene.

Because of his interest in nature and seasonality, Sternfeld rejected the concept that "black and white are the colors of photography" while a student. At the time, the choice to pursue color photography was the equivalent of "career suicide," he said.

Since he is drawn to bold colors, he said his earliest work may be too colorful. As he grew older he refined his color palette and embraced pastels.

Sternfeld said that young artists often stress content over color palettes.

"That search for a theoretic underpinning for the use of color has ceased, and students are simply working in terms of content," he said.

Sternfeld's most recent photos have focused on climate change, which he believes is potentially irreversible. In his own career as a photographer, he has witnessed serious environmental changes.

"The irony in my life is that I've lived long enough to see the thing I love so well be threatened as a place for human habitation," he said. "That's the moment I find myself in."

Montgomery Fellows program director and government professor Christianne Hardy Wohlforth said Sternfeld's photos problematize conventional understandings of "what we see."

"As a child I often heard, if not heeded, the adage to believe only half of what you read and none of what you hear," she said. "Sternfeld's work now makes me question the reliability of what we see as well."