Selected writings on Sternburg's work


Anyone who goes for a walk in Los Angeles needs a good reason. The writer and photographer Janet Sternburg is looking for equivalents ofreclaimed life. . . she captured scenes with her camera again and again which give the impression that the world falls apart into shapes and surfaces, sometimes so radically separated from one another, as if cut with a scalpel, or it is the other way round: then things collide that have nothing to do with each other. But when she points hercamera into windows, the inside and the outside flow inseparably into one another and a new world emerges. a different world, which transports the viewer into a state of suspended animation. . . Janet Sternburg was on the road everywhere in the Greater Los Angeles region, from the north of the city, the Green Valley, which was destroyed by fires a few years ago, to the far south of the city. down to Point Fermin near the Pacific Ocean. . . LA serves her as a treasure trove for motifs that often strive towards abstraction, for which she refrains from using the term "spiritual" only, as she explains in a conversation, because she is afraid of ending up in a cliché. 

Freddy Langer  
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 
May 19, 2022 


Your photography and your writing is a perfect evocation of work as worship, wealth in the face of the spiritual desert we all find ourselves

Ivan Bellman
Theater Director 



Los Angeles-based photographer Janet Sternburg is one of the outsiders . . she spent her pandemic walking, which as we all know is an unaccustomed way of being in that city—a good way of seeing it differently, as it turns out. And yet, “I’m not documenting Los Angeles during the pandemic,” she insists in her introduction to her new book, I’ve Been Walking: Los Angeles Photographs (Distanz Verlag, Berlin, 2021). “Nor am I trying to present a comprehensive view of the city,” she continues. It’s more about the tangent at which a gaze meets a surface. . . And what’s to be observed? Not the usual subject matter of street photography, namely other people. They are almost entirely absent from these pictures—I said almost. You can catch some out of the corner of your eye: a man painting a green wall a lighter shade of green; the shadow of someone walking a dog cast on a cinder block wall; a skateboarder’s feet, the rest of whose body is hidden by a textured glass window; one or two others. Most importantly, the observer herself is not observed, so a certain form of self-consciousness is evaded.. . Still, it’s a city, teeming with human life, and everything in it speaks of the people who are hidden somewhere around. There are windows, sometimes guarded by ancient, bent Venetian blinds; what’s on the other side? . . . Mattresses left out on the sidewalk, traffic lights, graffiti, things that are ultimately anonymous. The philosopher Jane Bennett, in a conversation with Sternburg included in the book, compares the images to lists, “discrete things, each packed with resonating forces.” Yes, but these images seem to undermine the discreteness of things, pushing them up against each other. Scale becomes illegible, planes converge. The city is a collage, and so many of Sternburg’s images look like they’ve been produced by cutting and pasting, but no—they’ve been collaged by life, time and perception.

Barry Schwabsky
from Changes of Focus: Janet Sternburg, Teju Cole, Mark Peckmezian, Charles Johnstone 
Border Crossings, May 2022



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.
This book about the nature of photography is intense and confusing,
but definitely essential.
It makes you reflect upon photography,
it reflects all our ideas about it and throws them back at us.
It shows us a kaleidoscope of reflections,
image upon image
layer upon layer,
light upon light,
and world upon world.

Wim Wenders
from his foreword to Janet Sternburg: Overspilling World



Now I know that Sternburg is an original and has opened a new branch in the tree of photography.

Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist and author
from his essay in LIMBUS catalogue, USC Fisher Museum of Art



What is surface? What is reflection? This is what holds me in thinking about the Sternburg’s work. It is that question of what connects us to the real. Signs pop in behind and overlay the figure in shop windows, the sky is ever present, red is blood. It is internal and external, and it truly is an “overspilling world.

Catherine Opie
from her commentary on Janet Sternburg: Overspilling World



The result of rapid and profound observation, of various levels of meaning and significance. . . the eye seems to succeed, as Fernando Pessoa would have expressed it, in losing itself in looking at the world.

Alessandra Mauro, editorial director of Contrasto Publishing
from her introduction to book launch at Paris Photo



Eugène Atget may have been the first photographer to aim his camera into shop windows, capturing elegant mannequins framed by the facades of the Paris boulevards. Decades later, Lee Friedlander used shop windows to create a series of spectral self-portraits, recording his own shadow as it slithered between bright reflections and dark interiors. . . At moments, Sternburg’s pictures recall these antecedents, but only to revise them by adding more complex, suggestive imagery.

Pepe Karmel
from his afterword Pictures from the Gnostic Universe in Janet Sternburg: Overspilling World



The stylistic secret of Janet Sternburg is the ability to grasp the incessant flow of vitality of everyday life. . . to restore the fullness of life.

Milano Photo Festival, 2018



Sternburg is able to capture life’s extremes—passions, blossomings, erosions, and decay—all at once, in one picture. . . Her images irresistibly seem to convey the spirit of Latin American literature: her stances are strong, her tone is never lukewarm, she exposes wickedly composed stories comprising fantastic, sometimes ludicrous details, obviously governed by passionate feelings—and death is never far. Having said this, it is important to add that Sternburg is a refined poet and writer - living between Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico -, and that no aesthetic act in her art is ever accidental.

Alexandra von Stosch
from her essay Ambiguity in Motion: Janet Sternburg's New Vision
in Janet Sternburg: Overspilling World



Janet Sternburg's images can be understood as a school of seeing
and an iconography of memory all at once.

Joern Jacob Rohwer
from his catalogue essay for The Behavior of Light, Sternburg’s traveling exhibition (Berlin, Heidelberg, Munich, Freiburg) sponsored by the American Embassy in Germany



{Sternburg’s} work makes the viewer reflect on the multiple layers of experience within a moment. As with any good exhibit, a verbal description is not the way to see. You have to see it for yourself to experience the ways of seeing.

Korean Herald
on Sternburg's  installation/ exhibition at The Seoul Institute of the Arts, commissioned to inaugurate its Art & Technology Center. 



Different as they are, the photographs all seem to speak the same language: a multiverse of symbols and reflections that is uniquely Sternburg’s own.

In her essay for the book, Sternburg reveals that the images were in no way manipulated and were, for the for the most part, taken on disposable cameras or an Iphone. This make the images all the more remarkable as they are the opportunistic products of chance moments curated by a singular sensibility – captured by an itinerant eye at just the right moment.

Sternburg’s images often incorporate elements of domesticity. However, it would be wrong not to see the slyness or the cultural commentary Sternburg makes with these images. In this way, Sternburg’s work recalls other artists such as Judy Fiskin and Laurie Simmons, cerebral women artists who made art of those areas of life deemed female or domestic, such as furniture, dinner settings and those rooms, in which, as T.S. Eliot famously said, “the women come and go’’.

Several of the images collected in “Overspilling” are completely abstract and read as almost painterly canvases, or rather landscapes of the fissures in the inner self. Works such as “Wall”, “Theater” and “Synapse,” capture light, air, and dust in ways that call to mind the work of iconic California artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, but also John Baldessari. Even Sternburg’s abstract works seem conceptual – the eye searches for signifiers embedded in the work.
Yet, at the same time, the meaning in Sternburg’s photos seems always slightly out of reach, gauzy, etched with streaks, lines, smudges. Some images like “Overspilling World,” The Sleeper” and “Red” appear as the petroglyphs or hieroglyphs of a contemporary society that retains traces of its ancient past. 

It is this combination of real and unreal, abstract yet actual that animates Sternburg’s photographs. Or as Wim Wenders put it so elegantly in his poem/essay about Sternburg’s work included in’ Overspilling’: ”A photograph can show a coin and its other side.”

As Sternburg notes, her images are “There for the seeing.” But when looking at Sternburg’s collected photographs in “Overspilling World,” to be fair,  one must admit that they are only there because Sternburg saw them first.


Tom Teicholz
from Sternburg's Photographs: ''There for the Seeing'', Forbes, 2017







Writings by Sternburg on photography


The Moment Whole

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean, ... to give the moment whole; whatever it includes.
Virginia Woolf 
It’s impossible, of course, as I believe Woolf knew. If I’m sitting in a restaurant having an intense conversation, how far do I have to extend the visual frame in order to encompass the moment? Do I include the waiter coming in and out through a glass door that, as it opens and closes, reflects changing views of the room? What about the long history of two people talking? Nonetheless I am looking for my own way to encompass that moment whole.



Excerpted from There for the seeing from the monograph Janet Sternburg : Overspilling World, monograph Distanz Verlag, Berlin

The Photographer and the World

The only true voyage of discovery … would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.
Marcel Proust

“Look at that!” I’m told I often said that as a child. An aunt once remarked that when she walked down the street with me, I’d point out things she’d never see on her own. What a gift, that recognition she gave me. I feel fortunate that I’ve somehow retained a child’s eyes, her capacity for astonishment; she is part of me, accompanying me on my walks. Now, however, when I say, “Look at that,” I turn that impulse into a photograph. As Tony Cohan has expressed it, my images “bear all the suggestive delight of a world witnessed afresh, as if a preternaturally sophisticated child were peering out upon adult mysteries, reawakening us to our own."
Since 1998, I’ve walked with a camera in many places: San Miguel, 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, and yes, again, Second Avenue in New York. What began as an experience of heightened mindfulness has become over time a spiritual practice.
It was Mexico that first inspired me with its blurring of boundaries, its complex Mestizo history that one sees in the streets every day. Mexico has become my way of seeing. On the Day of the Dead, the veil is supposed to lift between the living and the dead; Mexico lifts another veil, between myself and the world. The porosity I wanted long ago, even before that first photograph in San Miguel, has stayed with me, not all the time, but enough so that I can call upon that experience of being open to multiple and simultaneous dimensions. It was Merleau-Ponty who helped me carry this idea further when I read, “If I walk along a shore towards a ship which has run aground, and the funnel or masts merge into the forest bordering on the sand dune, there will be a moment when these details suddenly become part of the ship and indissolubly fused with it.”
I want to become “fused” – a detail among many. Sometimes my reflected visage will appear in an image; if it adds yet another layer of meaning, I let myself stay. Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” To which I would add that photographs contain multitudes, and the corollary, multitudes contain us. Several years ago I discovered a poem that has become important to me: The Invention of Glass by Homero Aridjis, in which the poet imagines the very first person who ever
lifted up the fugitive water,
held out the transparent stream
and saw the world on its other side.
I want my work as photographer and writer to dip into that transparent stream, where the other side is not the reverse, but rather revelation. I had looked into a store window and saw more than the objects on display. I saw a world. I’ve gone back many times since to that window, to photograph those words scrolling across a window: “Thank You for Looking.” It has been so many years now: how long could that courtly phrase and its Spanish equivalent remain, before the store’s owners bowed to pressure for change? But no. The owners have kept their words. You will find them in this book.
One of my great pleasures has been to sit anonymously in the middle of an exhibition of my work, as I did one day on a bench at Bellas Artes in San Miguel, watching as people went from picture to picture, looking at my work. Watching, too, as they’d stop – mid-stride – turn around, and go back to look a second time. They realized that more was there. Look again, as my images ask you to do.

Janet Sternburg, Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, 2016




As Contributing Editor to Times Quotidian, an online cultural journal, I wrote a series of essays on the relationships among photography, word, and image. Below is one, from a forthcoming collection.

Holes In The Net Of Time

Photography and Time in Observatory and Forest Reflections on two recent books of photography and text: ‘From The Observatory’ by Julio Cortazar and ‘December’ by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter —

When I was in my twenties and making films, I read Eisenstein’s writings about the dynamic principle of montage — the ‘third thing’ that can happen if images are juxtaposed such that new meanings emerge, as in the classic example of Potemkin in which a statue of a lion seems to sleep, awaken, roar, the images together becoming  a metaphor for previously somnolent masses roused and rising up against oppression.
I thought then — and still do —  that this principle of tertius (Eisentstein’s term) explains something essential about artmaking:  the way that juxtaposition can create meanings that are neither inherent in a single image nor in the randomly coupled, but through an act of placement so finely tuned that the third thing leaps out.
In those same years I went to Arata Isozaki’s groundbreaking exhibition, ‘MA’: Space-Time in Japan, which helped to introduce the concept of MA to western minds: the idea that images, sounds, forms create between them an interval, an absence, a pause, an in-between space through which meanings emerge.
Two ways of making: the first, montage, through the artist’s precise control: in filmmaking with cuts, in Western Classical music with the way in which chords and movements follow one another; in poetry with metrical patterns, always with the artist’s intention to make the lion roar.
The second way, MA, lives in the liminal where multiple interpretations are welcome, and the order of the day is the paradoxical non-order of elusive forms combined with structure, together in the service of playfulness and possibility.
Two recent books of word and image relations have prompted me to speculate on the similarities and differences between these two ways of making and being: From The Observatory, for which writer Julio Cortazar is author of both photographs and  text (first published in 1972, now in an English translation, Archipelago Books, 2012); and December (Seagull Books, also 2012) a collaboration between writer/ filmmaker Alexander Kluge and visual artist Gerhard Richter, here as photographer.
As I encountered both books, as I read and looked, I found that the relationship of text to photograph was by no means clear. Both raised a question: had the artists themselves designed the placement of words and images within the books — sometimes with an image on the opposite side of the text, at other times in a double spread or standing alone — or was the layout instead the work of a third person, a professional book designer? The question seemed briefly important because it corresponds to one of the core questions that an artist asks when making a foray into image/text territory.
Then I decided that I didn’t want to ask that question. These books are the manifestations of extraordinary minds at work. What can they tell us — beyond conventional explication of ‘who did what?’ — about deeper connections between the photograph and word?
Julio Cortázar’s ‘Prosa del observatorio,’ is described in the jacket copy as ‘perhaps the strangest of all his books,’ consisting visually of thirty six black-and-white photographs taken by Cortazar himself of the Maharajah Jai Singh’s 18th century observatory in Jaipur. The observatory was built to look outward and upward to the stars, but is instead (at least when I was there about fifteen years ago), in a cordoned-off park-like space, vestigial but still compelling, especially so in the magnification that Cortazar captures, as if its structures were punctuation, its rib-like arcs curving like enormous commas, its entirety a symphonic structure corresponding to no known astronomy, an analogue to Cortazar’s sense of the world, its mystery and uselessness, its defunct majesty, a monument to the attempt to understand even as it is equally a monument to that which is left behind, its stairs leading to nowhere — at least not to an anywhere that we, observers at the observatory, can see.
Through niches and openings, the text emerges as wriggling eels. Yes, eels: at roughly the same period in his life as his voyage to Jaipur, Cortazar read an article in Le Monde on the life cycle of eels. In time, marinating in Cortazar’s mind, the two — observatory and eels —
converged into this book. I excerpt from Cortazar at my and your peril since his mind is as supple as eels and doesn’t stand still for the logical connection between previous and next.
‘. . . they  {eels} travel on toward fluvial sources, searching in innumerable stages for an arrival from which they can expect nothing; their force do not come from themselves, their reason palpitates in other tangles of energy that the sultan consulted in his way, from portents and hopes and the primordial terror of the firmament filled with eyes and pulses.’
‘Everything corresponds’, Cortazar writes. What is this mysterious correspondence between eels and the instruments of astronomy? One explanation is that the two represent different ways of knowing and not-knowing: eels live in the world of not knowing, a kind of analogue to the limbic system of the brain, sent by their biology to routes that defy comprehension. The observatory comes to us from the cerebral cortex, from the discourse of rational measurement. At one point Cortazar’s fever dream devolves into a diatribe against rationalist scientific thought, how it diminishes the freedom to wriggle, to search without conclusion, and instead collapses his beautiful suspended in-betweens into blacks and whites.
This reader doesn’t want Cortazar to come to a point, any point. I would say instead that the correspondence of eel and observatory is the sensation one feels while reading, that everything is pulling and being pulled through orifices  — the eels as they pass from river to river, heading without knowing toward an inevitable destination, pulled toward their spawning and into their demise even as the stars and planets are submitting to the pull of their gravitational orbits, never converging but subject to and being part of that endless pulling in which all beings partake: life and death.
‘. . . a verb’s migration: discourse, this course, the Atlantic eels and the eels words, the marble lightning of Jai Singh’s instruments, the one who looks at the stars and the eels, the Mobius strip, turning round on itself, in the ocean, in Jaipur . . .

The second book, December, is an anti-chronological glossary on the idea of  calendars: thirty nine brilliant, caustic, deadpan narratives by Kluge, each dated with days, each in the month of December although freed from numerical order, the years too journeying up and down the centuries, 1991 near to 21,999 BC..  Accompanying the stories are an equivalent number of photographs of snow-covered branches, at first appearing black and white until one notices definite but ambiguous daubs of red, simultaneously suggesting bloody tracks, a wound under cover and a cherry tree’s blossoms latency behind a screen of snow.
Richter in his photographs implies a constant question: what is figure, what is ground? Which is branch, which is sky? Do the branches cross between the space of sky? Or are the branches themselves space? In December, an image covers the entire frame without any stabilizing horizon; it is as though transparent cloths have been draped over separate pieces of landscape and by means of this isolation, each image has been given its own rhythms of presence and absence.
Haunted by World War II, thumbing its nose in all seriousness at the specter of German order, December is a daybook in the process of becoming a nightbook. National specificity spirals outward until the book is haunted by time itself, its authors constructing a book that defies order in its crux of ancient and present (Pontius Pilate in the same Klugian scheme of things as Gorbahov).
Look at a calendar as I just did, with December in mind. Instead of seeing only little rectangles with numbers on whose accuracy we automatically depend, see them as miniature tricksters. Most of the time they remain opaque to us, serving as guideposts to what we must do, conveyors of information we choose to mark in them. However, if we see each rectangle as ‘a hole in the net of time’ (Cortazar’s phrase), it becomes a translucent gateway to the experiences that lie behind those marks. And if we blur the lines of demarcation between the rectangles, the calendar becomes one with the space-time continuum that Kluge and Richter make manifest.
I suggest that this playing with time and space is a necessary condition for word and text collaborations that are not illustrative but instead poetic and metaphorical. These books — From the Observatory and December —  are exemplars of MA in action; ‘everything corresponds,’ as Cortazar has written, but what exactly are the correspondences? Do not ask, these books say. Eels and observatory. History without chronology. Snow without context. Look for something else.
These books not only implicitly give us the something else; they also ask it of us as we think about and make our own work. Which is one’s path? The indicating one-way direction of tertius, of montage, of the third thing? Or the way of MA, of the interval, the space between that gives form to the whole? The first way is about striving, the heroic attempt not achieved
but rather achieving heroism in the attempt. The second way is about not striving, about letting what comes through the space in between, letting being the artistic act as much as making.

This hour that can arrive sometimes outside of all hours, a hole in the net of time, this way of being between, not above or behind but between, this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours . . . ‘ —From the Observatory



The differences are real; Do we make the orifice hour or do we let the orifice hour come into being? They are not only artistic choices; they are ways of being. As of this writing, I have an inkling that tertius and MA, rather than being parallel tracks, instead may meet at intersections as yet unknown to me. However, beyond these two paths I want to put forth a third way that I’ll call the way of placement. When I place my own photographs next to one another, I’m looking to see what resonances emerge. I’m thinking neither of a third thing they make by this juxtaposition, nor of the spaces between but am interested instead in slowly accreting revelations that shift and change with each new viewing. In this aesthetic, images are companionable in their side-by-sideness, the way that one sentence of prose ‘enjoys’ the company of the next, one line of poetry elides into the next, the turn gliding as though on skates, without insistence.
Be advised: approach these books only when you find yourself in that charged orifice hour of which Cortazar writes: this orifice hour to which we gain access in the lee of other hours . . . ,‘  because if you are not, if you remain in the divisions we call night or day, you will never swim in the same starry sea as Cortazar, never wander in the same dark forest as Richter and Kluge. It is grasp, not comprehension, that you want, a sudden o (itself an orifice word), and afterward a resonance that remains in the orifice hour of your being. Approach at a time when you find yourself with an interior spaciousness that makes room for another. On that day, these probes into time, these multiple ways of being, will be yours as they open to the infinite.