The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is proud to present Stranger Passing: Collected Portraits by Joel Sternfeld, encompassing 65 large-scale (40 x 50–inch) color photographs. The seemingly simple yet deeply revealing images, taken over the past 15 years across the United States, will be on view at the Museum from July 6 to October 2, 2001.
Sternfeld first came to international attention with his 1987 book American Prospects, a landmark study of America in the 1970s and 1980s. While harkening back to Walker Evans’ seminal American Photographs and Robert Frank’s The Americans, the photographs in American Prospects suggest neither Evans’ austere and aloof attitude nor Frank’s despair and anger. “In Stranger Passing the great complexity of the American experience is acknowledged,” observes Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA curator of photography, who organized the exhibition.
Sternfeld’s new work may remind viewers of the work of German photographer August Sander, who set out to classify his contemporary society by photographing his subjects as “types.” As Sander explained, “We recognize people and distinguish one from another by their appearance. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do, we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there.”
Sternfeld, however, takes the opposite tack. The subjects in Stranger Passing defy categorization. The contingent nature of photographic representation and identity in postmodern society is at stake in this work. The portraits cause the viewer to look closely—and then to look again. Who, truly, are these people, and what has brought them to this particular landscape at this precise moment? What does their dress signify, if anything? What can we learn from a close reading of the things they carry? What lies in facial expression—how does one come to know the other? The process is fraught with difficulties, yet it is human nature to try to ferret out meaning. As essayist Ian Frazier writes in the Stranger Passing catalogue, “Much of the elegance of these portraits is that they don’t pursue the questions, that they leave them unsolved.”
Through his subjects, Sternfeld documents the ethnic diversity of America: two young interns (one Asian, one white) dressed in business suits eat lunch on Wall Street; an elegant Somali woman in a multicolored traditional gown pumps gasoline at a convenience store; an African-American man sits alone at a picnic table with a chess set
in an overgrown backyard; a middle-aged white woman worn by the elements sells newspapers on a median strip; a mixed-race white and Latino couple in formal attire prepares to enter a prom. Sternfeld recalls the author Philip Wylie, who expressed the thought that we will never have peace in the world until we have a world of tea-colored people. The process of this coming to be is visible in Sternfeld’s work.
Looking at the exhibition in its entirety, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each image carries its own weight, but in the end viewers walk away with a transformed view of contemporary American society. As Frazier writes, “Often what Sternfeld’s photographs describe is endless, shaky potential. The unreadability of what he sees on the surface only enhances the country’s mystery. Endlessness of possibility makes for longing; longing is the essential American emotion which these photographs hold.”
Sternfeld, who was born in New York City, has shown his photographs at museums throughout the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art and Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. His last book, On This Site, 1996, reveals the places where historically significant—and often violent—incidents occurred, and questions what is knowable from the landscape. The recipient of numerous awards, including two Guggenheims and the Prix de Rome, Sternfeld teaches photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
A 136-page catalogue entitled Stranger Passing, produced by Melcher Media, Inc., in association with SFMOMA, will be published by Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company (www.bulfinchpress.com). The book, with 60 exacting four-color reproductions, will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore and elsewhere for $50. A paperback edition will be sold exclusively at the MuseumStore for $29.95.
The exhibition is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with support from Millennium Partners.