Sternfeld, pioneer in color photography as an art form, to speak in Pittsburgh


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Joel Sternfeld's cameras and color sense have taken him around the world, photographing New York City's High Line before it became a destination, Italy's famed Roman Campagna and more than 40 experimental utopian communities in the United States.

Twenty-nine of Mr. Sternfeld's utopian community images are exhibited as part of the current Carnegie International and will be on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland through March 16. Mr. Sternfeld, 69, of New York City, will give a free talk about his work at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30 in the museum's theater.

Mr. Sternfeld's 62 images of communities ranging from Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Ariz., to Old Economy in Ambridge, to the dacha/staff building at the hospital Dr. Patch Adams founded in Hillsboro, W.Va., were published in a 2006 book called "Sweet Earth."

Tina Kukielski, one of three curators who for the Carnegie International, became aware of Mr. Sternfeld's photographs while working at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

"He has a bold ambition to address big subjects, the promise of new communities and new ways of living and alternative lifestyles through a very accessible, approachable means," she said.

"Sweet Earth" "did encapsulate a bit of the hopes and failures of the founding of this country and what we wrestle with today," Ms. Kukielski added.

Mr. Sternfeld said in a recent telephone interview that when he began shooting color in the 1970s, "color photography really wasn't considered an acceptable medium of fine art photography."

One day in 1974, he showed his images to a New York gallery employee. "The gallerist asked me, 'Why are you working in color? Black and white is so natural.'

"Now, that seems like a really telling question. But at the time, it was a pretty natural question because color photography as it was being practiced was really pretty garish. It was largely practiced by commercial photographers in advertising or journalists," Mr. Sternfeld said.

He stuck with his passion.

"For me it was sort of career suicide to work in color, but I did it because I perceived myself from an early stage to be interested in seasonality -- the changing of the seasons -- that's what I deeply loved."

His romance with nature bloomed during his boyhood in the New York borough of Queens.

"I grew up in Belle Harbor, which is in New York City, but it has the most powerful sense of nature and seasons. It wasn't even the beach and the water. I just dreamt about everything that had to do with nature. I read about Thoreau."

Like many artists, Mr. Sternfeld was influenced by the color theories of Josef Albers, the famed Bauhaus professor who immigrated to the U.S.

"I took it as a given that a color photographer had to choose his or her palette just as a painter would choose theirs. You work with Albers as a starting point for a heightened awareness for what colors can do: heighten awareness and interact with each other.

"By the time I get to 'Sweet Earth,' it's built into my work. It's less conscious, it's less deliberate."

Last year, as part of a project to capture what he calls the "global moment," he journeyed to South Africa to photograph Nelson Mandela's funeral. One of his dream assignments came in 2000, when he first saw the abandoned historic railroad freight line that became the High Line. Robert Hammond and Joshua David, co-founders of Friends of the High Line, took him there on a cold March morning.

"Robert said to me, 'We need the money shot.' I said, 'Robert, the money shot takes time. I need a year of access to the High Line.' He negotiated it with CSX Railroad.

"So, I got access and the wonderful thing was that for the next couple of months I forgot about Robert and Josh and they seemingly forgot about me. In April, it rained. It was the rainiest April in living memory and in May the High Line bloomed as it has never bloomed before. In May, I just started to photograph."

He spent days taking pictures of the wild industrial space that has become a park, outdoor art gallery and destination for visitors on New York's West Side.

"I was all alone and I was free to think about it as an artist. Even though this was a project that might have some practical purpose, I was free to think about it in terms of just how I wanted to depict it. There were so many ways that it could have been done. Eventually, I just started following this thin little path that had been worn into the High Line by the few people who had come up there."

That was an idyllic time for the photographer.

"I loved the High Line when it was just mine, when I was the only person up there and I had a private park in New York City. I had to make an appointment to see it. ... I'd walk around. I was all alone."

The High Line project "was a utopian work," Mr. Sternfeld said. "Some people consider utopia to be derived from nature. For some people, utopia is the city. It fit within this lifelong theme that has emerged in my work -- utopia and dystopia."


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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