Joel Sternfeld

Concentrating on site-specific artists Joel Sternfeld’s series, ‘On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam’ (1996) is simply majestic in having captured particular locations.  However, without the use of captions that accompany the images, viewers could easily misread them, purely for the aesthetic beauty in which the images exude. The series consists of fifty photographs, which all appear to be serene images of the urban, suburban or rural landscapes of America but this is far from the truth. The text, which supplements the peaceful images, contextualizes them into sites of terror and human tragedy. These are scenes where at some point in time, a murder, a rape or a death had taken place. These small direct pieces of chilling information bring the images into context and completely change the way in which the viewers read them.

What’s unique and strange about the series is that there is no visible trace of the horror that marks the sites; Sternfeld’s perception of the space is colored by the memory he carries with him, other than that these images are simple and pretty landscape photographs. It’s what we don’t see that makes these images so provoking. Sternfeld’s photographs are marked by two major absences: the absence of official sanctioned memorials and the absence of people. The absence of people in Sternfeld’s photographs is conspicuous: these are sites of human violence and tragedy, yet Sternfeld removes all human presence from the majority of these images. The photographs are primarily landscapes, but because of what the images represent, their meaning is tied to human motives and behaviors. I find Sternfeld’s use of landscape images to represent human tragedy very interesting.  In relation to my core brief, the idea of completely removing all human activity or presence could be difficult but could be really effective in evoking shock about what my father had experienced in these places. It’s something I’ll have to experiment with.

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