Friday, November 21, 2008

Oxbow Archive by Joel Sternfeld



Joel Sternfeld's new book Oxbow Archive seems to takes its point of departure from the Thomas Cole painting completed in 1836, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow. The view described, looks over a landscape that is split into quadrants. A patch of foliage sits in the bottom left corner nearest to where we 'stand' while to the right overlooks the distant u-turn of the Connecticut River - the Oxbow. The sky is divided in tone as a thunderstorm recedes moving out of frame to the left. From the elevated vantage point and dramatic view from the Mount Holyoke Range it may, at first glance, look to be a God's eye view - that is until we discover the tiny figure just below and almost out of sight, standing in front of an easel painting but looking at us from over his shoulder. On the cliff edge, a small travel stool and a closed umbrella sits where - we might suspect - the artist sought refuge during the storm.

The proximity of this area to where Sternfeld resides allowed almost daily trips to wander and photograph. Equipped with his trademark 8 x 10 and color film Sternfeld first made a photograph in this region in October of 1978 - a photograph of a thinning stand of trees that competes for the viewers attention from the distant meadows. Unlike Cole's seemingly floating vantage point, Sternfeld plants us firmly on the ground and in the shoes of the artist we discovered quickly painting the sun breaking after the storm. It is a strictly human vantage point he provides. The amount of foreground he includes is easily imagined extending directly under our feet. As Sternfeld trudges over fallen corn stalks or onto soft sand he extends that tangible feeling to us.

Like Cole's painter may have experienced after the thunder receded, Sternfeld takes in the silence of this landscape, only breaking it with his boots. The views are still and quiet - even the geese found in late November have stopped for a rest amongst corn stalks. With so much emphasis on the perceived silence and the foreground terrain, these pictures remind me less of the painting that that inspired them than the sounds the explorer made with his footfalls.

Sternfeld dates his photographs and the 77 plates run the course of a year. Sequenced, they chronologically describe the shift of season and color temperature much like Cole's painting with its shift from storm to sunlight. Sternfeld commits to film this variation which Emerson alludes in the quote that starts the journey; "To the attentive eye, each movement of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again."

Oxbow Archive
is consistent with Sternfeld's book format of the slightly oversized coffee-table book that allows for large plate reproductions. The clean design leaves one image per page oriented on the right-hand side. There is no text other than the Emerson quote, a good decision as none is needed. The printing is simply beautiful, capturing the subtle variations of hue that are part of his palette.

This is a book about a walk, a year's worth of day trips into nature. There is no fear of the unknown or of the wilds of nature. We will not get lost as there are constant signs of past exploration and paths to lead our way home. To me it serves as a reminder of tranquility, grace and beauty - all things too easily forgotten in a world struggling to right itself.

Joel Sternfeld Oxbow Archive is published by Steidl.

3 comments:

QT Luong said...

I am sometimes wondering why nature photography work doesn't seem to get any attention in the contemporary art world (of which this blog is part). I mean the type that is done in the "wilds of nature", a relevant example here being Jim Brandenburg's "Chased by the Light" and "Looking for Summer". The books are, literally, daily trips into the North Woods outside of the photographer's home, taken on successive days for 3 months, with the unique virtuoso twist that he restricted himself to making a single photograph each day.

Is that because nature without the hand of man (which is seen in Sternfeld's images) is uninteresting for fear would not be a reason to ignore ? Or is it because the nature photographer has not engaged the contemporary world in all of his career, while if one has done so in other work, his voice is heard even if he turns his lens to nature ?

narkin said...

This work reminds me of Jem Southam's work, especially the 'Upton Pyne' series, but comes off poorer for the comparison, I have to say.

Stuart Alexander said...

There is a map at the back of the book that includes the precise location of every photograph in the book. It is odd to me that not one of those photographs was made in the area of the Cole painting. They are made in an area that would be visible from the Cole vantage point by turning about 90 degrees to the right. Of course, I-91 running right through the middle of the Oxbow does kind of destroy the picturesque. The East Meadows Archive would be more accurate but only locals would understand that.