Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sternfeld - photography, the problematic medium

Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virginia, December 1978
In a piece published last year in Forbes online edition writer Jonathon Keats considers Joel Sternfeld's most iconic image, that of a fireman buying a pumpkin from a roadside stall while a building behind is in flames. Of course anybody with a passing knowledge of the mediums history would know that the fire was a training exercise and the fireman was taking a break. Without that information the picture is open to speculation and interpretation. To me that's what all great pictures should do, asks questions, give no answers, and stop time at a critically pivotal point. Think too of André Kertész's wonderful photograph Bridge at Meudon made fifty years before the Sternfeld image.
Sternfeld comments - You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo, he told the Guardian in a 2004 interview. No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.

To me it's all about the narrative potential of an image and that's often as as much about what you leave out of the frame as to what is left in. And good photographs are not passive and go beyond just surface. There should be a story lurking in there somewhere and it's over to the viewer to tease it out.

Keats comments in the Forbes piece, Sternfeld’s pictures remind us that, like a camera, our eyes are essentially passive. Like photography, observation is an act of authorship.
Unlike the ultimate viewers of a picture the photographer is the primary author with a particular story to tell. And the photographer works from a privileged position knowing the context and back story behind the work. Everybody else is stuck with a secondary reading with just the information inside the frame to go on. The wonderful thing is that no matter what the photographer might build into an image every reader will potentially come to a completely different conclusion. In my experience so often somebody will see something in one of my photographs, in both form and content, things that I'd never considered or imagined. I love it when that happens. Then it gets really interesting when you start to build a more complex narrative by making an edit and sequence. More speculation, more interpretation. How exciting is that!
You can read the full Forbes piece HERE.

André Kertész, Meudon, 1928

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