Stranger Passing: Collected Portraits by Joel Sternfeld

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

July 6 – October 2, 2001

Stranger Passing is a collection of some 65 large (40" X 50") color photographs by Joel Sternfeld taken over the last fifteen years. These elegantly composed and executed portraits are almost all placed outdoors in a landscape or cityscape and the play of subject against background is significant. (Even one of the few indoor shots is surely an interior landscape, taken in a large corporate real estate office where the rows of desks receding into the background are adorned with a series of identical large floral arrangements.) The title, with a bow to Whitman, refers to the photographer passing through the byways of America, asking people to have their pictures taken, and it is surely intended to apply as well to the subjects themselves–Sternfeld’s vision is sympathetic, but it also lends a surreal tone to many of these portraits, as if he were examining insects revealed under a turned log.

These are neither candid nor spur-of-the-moment photographs; at least to some extent choices were surely made about setting and perhaps other elements, though these feel neither forced nor inappropriate. Sternfeld does not appear to deal in the kind of hyper-manipulated image making sometimes seen in contemporary photography. If there is strangeness, it was there for Sternfeld to find and record. All of the pictures are taken from about the same distance and all the subjects are looking directly at the camera, a formal uniformity that unites the wild diversity of the subjects in the collection.

Two Men Comparing Palm Pilotsare in Silcon Valley (techie types are well represented in the collection); they seem serious, motivated, as if the photographer has, perhaps, interrupted a pitch for venture capital. They are also Asian; Sternfeld’s collection covers the gamut not only of race, but of age, economic status, and sexual orientation as well. Domestic Worker Setting the Table is a somewhat grim, uniformed and aproned black woman setting out an elegant luncheon on a Manhattan terrace, the Central Park reservoir and skyline suggesting her employers’ vantage point of privilege which she enters only as servant. Summer Interns Having Lunch are young guys on Wall Street decked out in establishment costumes: dark suits, suspenders, expensive ties–tomorrow’s captains of finance, paying their dues and, for now, having hot dogs for lunch.

Many of the subjects present grim expressions, revealing of hardscrabble lives (A Woman Selling the Sunday Papers) or the toll of age and/or experience (A Woman with a Wreath). But some suggest more optimism–A Family in the Doorway of Their Homeis a mixed race couple with their two kids; their not quite finished new home suggests a positive future. Most joyous of all, A Mother Playing with her Daughter is all smiles and fun in a funky New Mexico backyard.

Sometimes the effect is in the details. A Farmer Taking a Break is almost androgynous, leaning against her thresher in the midst of the corn, smoking a cigarette. The latter detail becomes more telling when the full title is read: She Has Cancer of the Thyroid. Sometimes the effect is in unexpected contrasts: A Woman Pumping Gasoline is garbed in multicolored, multipatterned African splendor. Two Men on Vacation in Bigfork, Montana are in matching cowboy drag, but one carries a fussy little Yorkshire terrier, betraying, perhaps, their more urban domicile. A Man and His Son After Marching in the Gay Pride Parade offers Dad, in full drag and makeup, whose Son in a stroller could belong to any ordinary parent. As, for that matter could the kid riding in the sidecar with his Hell’s Angels-type dad driving the bike (Motorcyclists).

And then there is the wonderfully weird or funny. A Woman out Shopping with her Pet Rabbitwhy is she carrying the beastie with her while shopping? or is she just picking it up at the vet? Does she have color coordinated beastie carrying cases for all of her shopping outfits?

If the woman with the rabbit is memorably odd, the image that will perhaps remain in memory longest is A Homeless Man with his Bedding — shirtless, with a grizzled beard, his grimy quilt draped across his shoulder, he looks like some sort of prophet of the streets, almost biblical until you notice his red running shoes.

Arthur Lazere


San Francisco ,
Mr. Lazere founded in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.