It has been endlessly pleasurable to watch museum visitors react initially with some confusion and then with delight at the collection of mechanized musical instruments that echo from the middle of the museum’s great Hall of Sculpture. Perhaps even more unexpected is the slow ambulation many visitors make around the outer walls of the same space. I watch visitors stop, stare, read, and admire the 29 Joel Sternfeld photographs that line the black bays spliced in between the white marble pilasters that are a hallmark of this space (museum lore attests that the room was based on the Parthenon). It is easy to lose time in this gallery, at least until one of two compositions erupts in orchestra every 20–30 minutes and pulls you outside of your head.
Joel Sternfeld’s artist talk is this Thursday, January 30, 6:30–7:30 p.m., Carnegie Museum of Art Theater
Sternfeld’s Sweet Earth series is an easy favorite. Once you’ve digested one image and text combination, it’s hard to resist Sternfeld’s storytelling. In the broadest sense, the subject of this work deals with experimental communities that tested utopian pursuits, past or present. The series is rich with colorful accounts of human conflict, delusion, faith, and perseverance. The thoughtful photographs were taken with Sternfeld’s trusty 8×10 camera.
Yet Sternfeld is no stranger to shooting from the hip. Recently the artist made a surprising body of work using his cell phone camera. Unlike the quiet, forgotten backroads of America, his newer subject demands a certain agility: consumerism. Specifically, Sternfeld spent a number of recent trips to Dubai photographing in one megamall or another. He was interested in using a consumer device—his iPhone—to turn his eye on global consumption. The result is a wide range of photographs that both reflect out onto the cultural and consumerist race that is now fueling the Emirates, while at the same time subtly hinting at the experience of alienation amid consumerist proliferation. This is the sentiment we see most often in the faces of the Sternfeld’s unsuspecting passersby. Nothing is quite grandiose or staged in these pictures, as one might expect from a place that touts the world’s largest building (the Burj Khalifa) and whose tourism numbers topped 10 million last year. Instead, Sternfeld triumphs the beautifully mundane and the result is an empathetic look at where we stand at a global crossroads. Here is a selection from the iDubai series.