Joel Sternfeld – ‘Stranger Passing’.

Over a period of fifteen years Joel Sternfeld travelled across America and took portrait photographs of people that he encountered during this time. Unlike historical portraits which represent significant people in staged surroundings, Sternfeld’s subjects are uncannily “normal”, and his style of shooting means the viewer can contemplate the figures captured within a certain environment, time period and circumstance.

This body of work is a collection of portraits that provide an insight into American life at the end of the 1980’s. Although we are both looking at similar subject matter in the form of strangers that we encounter whilst exploring the city, the difference is the significantly longer period of time in which the body of work was made. I have only had twelve weeks to produce a finished article, and to submit a body of work, whereas Sternfeld had the luxury of fifteen years for his project. I therefore think it was worthy to take on board his work, and to look at his style of image making, but to produce anything even marginally near to this level of work takes a lot longer than the time frame I have been allocated.

I personally believe that Sternfeld had a very natural way of photographing people, which is evident in the work itself. All of his subjects look comfortable, although mostly never smiling but looking straight to camera. As viewers, we are met with the gaze of a vast variety of people across America, and are fortunate enough to be given a tiny glimpse of what American citizens were like in the 80’s. The beauty of photography being a vehicle for communicating people’s lifestyles is truly amazing, and this body of work definitely achieves this. Sternfeld’s oeuvre is extensive and spans a great amount of time.

Something that I would like to try in my own portraiture work in the future is not always framing people in the centre of the frame, with lots of space around them in a very deadpan way. Although I like producing this kind of work, and enjoy looking at other photographers that shoot in a similar way, I believe that what makes Stranger Passing so successful for me is not only the variety of people, but the variety in which Sternfeld makes pictures of them. Some times people are central to the frame, other times they are casually leaning against an object. This variety really adds depth to the project, and enables the viewer to really engage with the imagery.

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