Janet Sternburg . Photography



About Sternburg



____It is in photography that I experience joy -- the internal gasp when I encounter something that asks to be photographed, the deep play of artistic inquiry and experimentation, a heightened sense of reciprocity with the world. My late-life passion for photography extends a multi-faceted career that has encompassed writing books of well-published essays, memoir, and poetry, as well as making award-winning documentary films, and working in theater, education, and cultural change.

____In 1998, I had finished a book that took me into the personal and historical past. Missing life in the present, I traveled to a town in Mexico, a journey that transformed me. I went for long walks, suspended, without specific destination. One day I stopped on a sidewalk in front of a store window full of random objects: advertisements for long-ago products, a faded sketch of a jubilant cat wielding a baton, dried flowers wrapped in layers of tissue paper. Painted in white script, scrolling across the window, were these words: Thank you for Looking, and across the window on the other side of the entrance, Gracias Por Mirar.

____The words called to me, as did the array that spoke of the secret life of objects, here together for so long a time that they cohered, becoming to my eyes a sudden beckoning and a memento mori. To my surprise -- without thinking -- I wanted to take a photograph. I walked to the town square where the only available camera was a single-use disposable.

____Later, I would realize the gift of the disposable: when a camera doesn’t have adjustable focus, and when there is no depth of field, everything within the frame appears on a single plane, becoming of equal interest and value. These limitations revealed to me that the separations that define much of the physical and political world are not necessary to recreate in photography. Little by little, the disposable helped me to find a way of seeing closer to the way our minds work. In my work, I break down boundaries -- inside and outside, solid and fluid -- that we need to navigate the world but are not adequate to our consciousness. Our minds are porous; our thoughts interpenetrate one another. I have since read that it is the brain that delineates inside and outside, that we ourselves activate the boundary by means of neural structures. In my photographs, I want to deactivate that boundary. I find multiple and interpenetrating dimensions through layers I uncover with my low-tech cameras, using no manipulation whatsoever.

____That first image was acquired several years later by the University of Southern California Fisher Museum for its permanent collection. Soon thereafter the photograph and others were published in portfolios of my work in Aperture and Art Journal. I continued on a steep learning curve. Generating a great deal of new work, I examined images separately and together for formal and emotional resonances. I learned about techniques of printing, especially when I worked with a master printer to make images as large as 66” x 44,” discovering that the images of a disposable camera hold their content at that size while also revealing previously unseen interpenetrations, new passages, beautiful blurs.

____I looked intently at the work of other photographers, among them Lee Friedlander and Hiroshi Sugimoto – very different artists who both make images that carry a related sense of an eye enthralled. I also felt close to the blurred moments of grace in Saul Leiter’s work, and the perception-altering ambiguity of Luigi Ghirri’s photographs. Everything informed my work, even as I continued to follow my own path.

____ In 2004, after solo shows at galleries in Los Angeles and New York, I was chosen by The Utne Reader as one of forty international visual artists, writers and musicians whose work is “innovative {with} depth and resonance. . . full of ideas and insights that challenge us to live more fully.” I was honored by those words that affirmed my own intentions, as well as to be in the company of artists and writers such as Vija Celmins and Colson Whitehead whose work so beautifully demonstrates their fulfillment.

____That same year, the cultural officer from the American Embassy in Germany saw my work when she visited a solo exhibition at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She offered me a show in Berlin, which then evolved into two years (2005-2007) of that exhibition traveling to Heidelberg, Hamburg, Nuremberg, Munich, and Freiburg, with my speaking about my work at universities and cultural centers.

____For the accompanying catalogue, the Embassy commissioned an essay by arts journalist Joern Jacob Roehwer who wrote, ''Since the nineties, Sternburg has been working as a photographer, achieving extremely refined artistic results, equipped with nothing but a disposable camera . . . She does not require effects, montages or tricks; nothing would be further from her than to deceive with her art. What she sees is true and present. How she sees it, however, is lyrical, performative, extremely specific and, in a rare, completed way, free.”

____In 2005, I embarked on an innovation, photopoems. For a book of my poems, Optic Nerve (Red Hen Press), I realized that certain poems had white spaces that opened up the possibility of an image. I inserted a photograph within a poem at a precise place that allowed for the flow of the whole, making it the same size as a stanza. In her introduction to Optic Nerve, poet Molly Peacock wrote, “Janet Sternburg dares to challenge the idea of poetic vision, creating visions inside the text, not as illustrations but as part of the body of the poems . . . Her photopoems open up new ideas of metaphor, redefining both poetry and photography with a sense of interplay that can only come with equally weighted ability.”

____In 2009, I branched out into conceiving of my work as an installation when the president of The Seoul Institute of the Arts commissioned me to do a full-building installation for the inauguration of his campus’ Arts and Technology Center which had been designed to be “multidimensional,” with internal views that opened to various perspectives; he felt that my investigations into photographic layering would complement that vision. Working with a projection artist, I designed an exhibit that made use of the building’s three story glass façade by covering it with two immense photographs printed on translucent paper, invented for the exhibit, so that a visitor could walk through my images to enter the building, and also see them at night by means of a computer program that lit the panes of glass in sequence.

____Inside the building were LED monitors embedded in a long black folding screen that stretched almost the width of the building. On each monitor I showed approximately seventy images in different orders; a viewer could either look at a single screen or sit on purpose built bleachers and watch a choreography of all the images moving together. I entitled the installation “Fertile Confusion,” an extension of my belief that unlike conventional negative expectations that attach to confusion, uncertainty can be generative to both artists and viewers.

____Currently I am planning for exhibitions in 2018/2019 at the Contrasto Galleria in Milan, the USC Fisher Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Museum of Modern Art in Mumbai, India; there will be a new publication accompanying the show at the Fisher Museum

____In 2016, I was given, along with my husband, Steven D. Lavine, the REDCAT Award to individuals who “exemplify the generosity and talent that define and lead the field of contemporary art.” Through the previous years, I have benefited from fellowships to MacDowell, Millay, Djerassi, Blue Mountain and PACT Zollverein residency artist programs, as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

____In 2016/17 the Berlin-based art book publisher, Distanz Verlag published a monograph of my work, Overspilling World. While working on the book, I sent a group of my photographs to filmmaker and photographer Wim Wenders, whom I know only through correspondence. He responded with enthusiasm and contributed the Foreword to Overspilling World, using the line breaks of poetry:

Photographers don't have eyes in the back of their heads / Janet Sternburg does. / This book makes you understand the act of seeing / and the reflection that /might lead to a photograph in a whole new way. . . /

____I took the title for the monograph from the philosopher Merleau-Ponty's notion of living perception as “an ongoing flow of perspectives on coherent things amid an overspilling world.” I believe that living perception is a beautiful idea with its implicit claim that the act of seeing is as alive as any other living thing. This aliveness has come to suffuse me.

____Since that first photograph in 1998 I’ve walked with a camera -- still a modest device but now mostly an iPhone, shot and printed always without manipulation -- in many places; the town in Mexico where I now live part of the year, an archipelago off the coast of Norway, a trailer park in Pacific Palisades, Superior Street in Duluth Minnesota, a ghost town in Utah, Second Avenue in New York City. I have continued to revisit and take photographs of that first window in Mexico with its signal phrases still there: Thank You For Looking and Gracias Por Mirar. They have become homage, talisman, and path.