You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly look for clues. In New York photographer Joel Sternfeld's Stranger Passing (2001), his recently published collection of deceptively simple portraits, viewers can try to guess the subjects' identities based on physical appearance and surroundings. For this series Sternfeld traversed the country in search of a definition of what it means to be American. Not surprisingly, the product of this quest, currently on view at SFMOMA in "Stranger Passing: Collected Portraits by Joel Sternfeld," raises more questions than it answers. The show coincides with "Joel Sternfeld: Photographs,"a complementary exhibition at the Haines Gallery, which provides a broader look at this influential photographer's body of work.
A visual counterpart to the melting-pot ethos, the 65 large color pictures of passers-by from all walks of life -- a Somali woman pumping gas in Kansas City, two young interns (one white, one Asian) eating hot dogs on Wall Street -- are marked by a uniformity (the people are posed and staring directly at the camera) at odds with the subjects' wild diversity. Although the intrepid shutterbug seems to have trained an impartial eye on these individuals, he does inject his own opinions into the images. Sternfeld's gentle wit comes across in the way he reveals subtle background elements -- a newspaper headline, a decaying tree, a ready chess set. It takes several passes to grasp each image's complexity, as it takes numerous encounters to get to know a person. Surprisingly, a photographer so attuned to the human condition has been, until now, renowned chiefly for his landscape work. The Haines exhibit includes images from two of his most recognized collections, On This Site (1993-1996) and American Prospects (1978-1987). Seeing his various themes side by side reveals Sternfeld to be much more than an image-maker; he is a documentarian of the changing face of America. The series On This Site depicts locations where violent acts have taken place. Long after the television crews, reporters, and gawkers have abandoned the scenes of the crime, Sternfeld revisits them -- the tree in Central Park where Jennifer Levin was found dead and the L.A. street corner where Rodney King was beaten by cops. The bleak, austere landscapes are startling in their banality, although the accompanying text reminds us that these settings will remain forever stained.
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Similarly, Sternfeld's earliest collection, American Prospects, a groundbreaking study of the country on the brink of technological and environmental change, captures the "extraordinary in the ordinary," according to the press materials. In four of his signature pieces, he focuses his lens on fleeting moments of irony: In the famous McLean, Virginia, for example, a fireman buys a pumpkin while a house burns behind him. Whatever the subject, Sternfeld's work reminds us that a sense of humor and an open mind can help us navigate the complex terrain from sea to shining sea.