Janet Sternburg . Photography



Selected writings on Sternburg's work



'' 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




“Photographers don’t have eyes in the back of their heads. Janet Sternburg does.” -Wim Wenders on Janet Sternburg’s photographs.
‘Overspilling World’ collects the photographs of Janet Sternburg, poet, playwright, documentary filmmaker and producer, and memoirist.  What is striking about Sternburg’s work, is not that she does all these different disciplines so well, but rather that she brings the same intellectual curiosity and deeply-felt artistic sensibility to each.

Sternburg’s photos seem dream-like, capturing reflections of images layered one upon the other, like the items gathered in a Joseph Cornell box, collages that force us to make speculative connections and associations. Some are abstract, while others specific in the items they reference: a mannequin, a doll, a cowboy. 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.
“These are the ingredients of the street,” writes Catherine Opie in her essay in ‘Overspilling World’. “It is in these moments that we as viewers and image consumers encounter the notion of travel and space as it relates to the everyday.”

Sternburg’s images often incorporate elements of domesticity such as women’s fashion on mannequins, or flowers, or furnished interiors (one domestic scene is even titled: “Ceci ne’est pas une salle’). Sternburg makes her viewers accomplices in spying on these private worlds. Works such as “Sale,””Thank you,” or “Bikini” can be read as sign posts of an imagined female voice and gentility. 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 because 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. This is particularly true for her many images made in Mexico. So in “Tapoztlan Hand,” a gold handprint remains grasping at an image of trees and sky. And in, “Gracias por Mirar” what we are looking at remains tantalizingly changing.
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.”

“Her images seem atemporal and aspatial,” says art historian Alexandra von Stosch. Von Stoch argues that in this era of oversharing Sternburg’s overspilling photographs require the viewer to read them differently. And that it is this very tension is what makes them Art.
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




'' 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




'' 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




'' 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




'' {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.