Photography, Memory, and Tragedy: Joel Sternfeld's On This Site
by Linda Levitt


Without the context of their accompanying text, the photographs in Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam could easily be misread as what they only appear to be: serene images of the urban, suburban, or rural landscape. Each of the fifty photographs is placed on a right-hand page of the book. Sternfeld’s concise, sometimes terse text is placed on the facing page of each photograph, contextualizing the image as a site of tragedy. Some of the images, like the corner of Austin Street in Kew Gardens where Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964, are hauntingly familiar. Others are more obscure, and the viewer is at a loss to make meaning beyond the significance of the image itself.

Sternfeld describes his project as seeking out the “list of places [he] cannot forget because of the tragedies that identify them.” Many of these places, however, are not marked by the trace of catastrophic events. How can the photograph speak for the tragic, if the site itself cannot? What “truth” do these photographs tell? On This Site questions how much information a photograph can hold: the images and text show that Sternfeld knows that even in the here-and-now of standing in a particular place, he can only know, and can only re-present, what he sees. Yet we also know what we remember, and in this way revisiting a familiar place is always fraught with a powerful kind of confusion about how we tie meaning to place. Sternfeld creates a context for his photographs that simultaneously enables and demands these images to take on a particular function: recalling and recording the tragic.

Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993
(courtesy of Joel Sternfeld)

The first photograph Sternfeld made for the book is an image of the crab apple tree in Central Park under which Jennifer Levin’s body was found on the morning of August 26, 1986. The photograph appears to have been made at dawn, and the scene is awash in warm morning light. Although not centered in the frame, the tree itself is the focal point of the image. Sternfeld says he “went to Central Park to find the place behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Jennifer Levin had been killed. It was bewildering to find a scene so beautiful…to see the same sunlight pour down indifferently on the earth.” There is no visible trace of the horror that marks this site; Sternfeld’s perception of the space is colored by the memory he carries with him to Central Park. The viewer too is confronted by the beautiful scene Sternfeld captures: how the photograph comes to mean depends on whether the viewer is, like Sternfeld, haunted by the specter of Levin’s murder. “As the fascination that photographs exercise is a reminder of death, it is also an invitation to sentimentality,” writes Susan Sontag. “Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past.” If the past is “an object of tender regard,” then we bring a dual sensibility to Sternfeld’s photographs: a kind of nostalgia for the familiar, but one that carries with it a trace of the familiar as catastrophic.

518 101st Street, Love Canal Neighborhood, Niagara Falls, New York, May 1994
(courtesy of Joel Sternfeld)

Sternfeld’s photographs are marked by two absences: the absence of official, sanctioned memorials and the absence of people. The absence of people in Sternfeld’s photographs is conspicuous: these are sites of human violence and tragedy, yet Sternfeld removes all human presence from the majority of these images. The photographs are primarily landscapes, but because of what the images represent, their meaning is tied to human motives and behaviors. These photographs raise questions about the impact of human beings on the environment and the landscapes we occupy. Two photographs deliberately ask for consideration of damage done to the environment: “518 101st Street, Love Canal Neighborhood, Niagara Falls, New York, May 1994” and “Hanford Reservation, Hanford, Washington, August 1994.” Sternfeld’s text captures what the photographs cannot: “From the 1920s through the 1950s, the city of Niagara Falls, the United States Army, and the Hooker Chemical Corporation dumped over 200 different toxic chemicals into Love Canal.” At Hanford, “[m]ore than 440 billion gallons of chemical and radioactive waste were poured into the ground.” There is horror in the earth and the air: can it be captured and evoked in a still image? The visual absence of evidence, and the absence of human presence, renders these photographs as chilling portraits of the invisible damage done to the environment.

Sternfeld’s work also asks for consideration of the media’s power to shape our perceptions of events in the world. This work is done largely through the presentation and repetition of spectacular images. Certain images, such as the explosion of the Challenger shuttle, are vividly entrenched in cultural memory not merely because of their horror, but because television viewers were subjected to replaying of the same sequence of events, as if caught in a catastrophic loop. Part of Sternfeld’s project in On This Site is to place the tragedy in another, equally relevant site, causing the viewer to reconsider the catastrophic. Sternfeld sets the Challenger disaster at the Morton Thiokol Rocket Testing Facility in Promontory, Utah. The rocket testing facility is as heavily coded as any NASA footage: in the middle of the desert, with no sign of other buildings, roads or humanity visible in the frame, a blockish, windowless building is set behind a barbed wire fence. The building is the same color as the desert and the scrub growing along the fence line. The only distinguishing colors in the photograph are the dark stormclouds rolling in. When the familiar images of heroic astronauts striding out toward the waiting shuttle are stripped away, the lack of a human presence, ironically, makes the tragedy seem even more inhumane.

Many of Sternfeld’s photographs do not carry the sense of the familiar. Some sites, like the Khoury League Baseball Field in East St. Louis where a Little League coach opened fire on a sixteen-year-old umpire, did not draw the repeated national media attention that leads to images being indelibly etched on the American psyche. The 911 Emergency Communications Center in Los Angeles does not appear significant, although it is the site at which Nicole Brown Simpson’s calls were received by the police. Photographs of these sites call for a contemplation not only of how we make meaning of images but also of the failures to communicate, cooperate and act humanely that linger on the periphery of our everyday lives.