Joel Sternfeld: On This Site

"Mr Sternfeld had devised a Baedeker to America in the age of anxiety, fear and moral crisis. One could argue that American life has been shaped by the events that took place on these largely unsung spots which form a contour map of contemporary angst." - Vicki Goldberg, The New York Times, February 13, 1994
After a tutorial with Lottie to discuss my my current SDA idea she suggested I look at Joel Sternfeld's On This Site for inspiration. Joel Sternfeld is an American fine art and documentary photographer. On This Site is a series of fifty photographs that Sternfeld took of fifty infamous crime scenes in the United States. The series captures these places where violence has stained the American landscape and looks at what has been left behind in these ordinary looking places.

The fifty photographs in this series were published in a photo book of the same name and inside the book you can view the full captions that go with each photograph. Which are created from reportage from newspapers and magazines that describe the crime that took place there. The photographs by themselves taken of these landscapes are devoid of people and rather unadorned however once you read the brief text that goes alongside these images there is a surprising potency that is created by them.

The captions really allow the viewer to take a step back and contemplate these events. This makes this series of images very much like memorials of what has happened in these places and I imagine for an American (like a British person looking at Amy Romer's work) that the work makes them question their sense of national identity. As decades of violence has shaped the American landscape yet there is a real irresponsibility towards this kind of violence in the United States.

Photographs such as the one above of the grocery in Missisipi show you places devoid of people that look to now have a calmness to them. They are taken in a very formal way presenting these places to us as though we are passing them on the street. It is only once you start to read the captioning that the perception we have of these places is changed for the viewer. Naturally we seem to assume innocence of the landscape yet in this series we are asked to stand between the threshold of what has happened there and what now remains in these places.

Individually these photographs have a potency with their accompanied text however as a series they become much more powerful. As you begin to acknowledge the crimes that have occurred in these places. There is certainly a familiarity for a viewer when looking at photographs presented in this way (particularly for an American) but this familiarity becomes tainted and as you start to read alongside the images they start to feel more and more haunting. It is as though Sternfeld wants the people in the US to acknowledge the more sinister past their country has.

Looking at this series has made me think more about how I can present my subject matter and think more about my captioning. I like the way in which you get the name and location of the place and then see a statement about the crime that has happened underneath. It allows what has happened here to unfold as you read further into the captioning which I really like the subtlety to, despite the subject matter being these horrible crimes that have taken place.

It has also made me think more about whether I want to aestheticise these places I will be photographing to make them appear more haunted and I have decided I would rather not. I like how Sternfeld's photographs simply are a recording and feel as though you are just walking past these places. I want my captions to change my subject matter rather than have the image tell you that these places are haunted. As I want the photographs to make people ask questions about why certain places are more likely to be haunted then others and whether simply looking at a place can suggest this kind of paranormal activity to you. 

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