"American Prospects," a landmark study of how the modern social order is revealed through landscape, published in 1988, brought brilliant photographer Joel Sternfeld to international attention. Sternfeld expanded this study with "A Stranger Passing." The sixty color portraits of ordinary Americans included in this book, and made over a fifteen year period, were first shown at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001, and published at the same time.
Although Douglas R. Nickel describes this book as a collection of portraits in his introductory essay, Joel Sternfeld's vivid images are so much more than traditional photographic portraiture. The pictures go beyond reflecting a mere image of the subject, no matter how interesting or aesthetic. And Sternfeld's subjects are more than the people being photographed. He has captured here the very essence of our culture - Americans, depicted in the context of their daily lives, during odd moments between events. Many of the warmest images feature relationships between two people.
Each photograph tell a story. The volume's cover portrait is titled "Young Man Gathering Shopping Carts." A teenager, with blond bobbed hair, open shirt, loosened tie, stands in a parking lot cluttered with pink shopping carts. The ubiquitous strip mall is the backdrop. His stance, the look of discontent on his face, and the generic locale say much more than most narratives. Sternfeld stirs the viewers imagination. One cannot help but wonder about the subjects' lives - the before and after of each picture. "A Lawyer with Laundry," New York, portrays a seemingly reluctant subject, laundry in hand, leaning against a newsstand while warily suffering the photographer's attention. Some of my other favorites include: a colorful sari wrapped middle-eastern woman pumping gas in Kansas City; a young woman with bouffant hair, wearing a cotton-candy pink jacket holding her pet rabbit in a plastic carrying case; a forlorn woman on a New York City street holding a spectacular Christmas wreath; a man grilling a single hamburger on a broken patio in Cincinnati; and
"Motorcyclists," which shows a man on a motorcycle, wearing goggles and a leather jacket, with an adorable baby in the sidecar wearing a helmet.
Douglas R. Nickel, who wrote the Introduction, is director of the Center for Creative Photography and associate professor of art history in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Ian Frazier, who contributed another fine essay is an author.
I don't usually buy coffee table books, although some of them are gorgeous. I have found that while I may admire the work a few times, I wind up placing the volume in a prominant place and then only glance at it occasionally, while dusting. This book is special though. "Stranger Passing" is a "travelogue of sorts, a detached, understated but compelling portrait of the people with whom Sternfeld has come into contact during his itinerant journeys." The photographer compels us to question the assumptions we make about others. This is an extraordinary book by an American master.