In contemporary art history, every great photographer seems to point to a specific lesson or genre. Mention street photography and you get Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the Decisive Moment. Bring up Lee Friedlander and you get discussions on shadows and the social context of photos.
Working within an image-saturated era with seemingly endless tech tools for photography, Janet Sternburg offers her own lesson — one that feels more like an unlearning. It has to do with the way we see the world, and with letting the camera embrace the imperfections of our sight.
Sternburg spent most of her life writing, with recent published works including White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine and Phantom Limb: A Meditation on Memory. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, The Poetry Review, Art Journal and more. From 1988 to 1995, she was a senior program adviser in media to the Rockefeller Foundation. Her husband, Steven D. Lavine, currently is the president of CalArts, an institution Sternburg also stays closely involved in.
Her contributions to cultural production date back decades, yet not until 1998 did she fully begin to realize her love for photography. While in Mexico, during one of her “long walks without any destination,” she got the sudden, very strong urge to take a photograph of what she saw. The only camera available: a disposable being sold in the town square.
“I took a picture of a window and a reflection in a window, which photographers have done forever as you well know,” Sternburg says. “But I discovered I could do something different with a disposable because there’s no depth of field. That meant that what was in front of me and what was behind me were intermingled. And I had a different view of the world — that all of the distinctions that we ordinarily make between inside and outside and solid and fluid are not the way our minds work. And that I was really taking pictures — with this super low-tech camera — of how our minds work.”
From afar, many of her photographs seem more like paintings or collages. They do, quite drastically, collapse any depth. The eye will naturally try to separate the layers — what is a solid object? What is a reflection? Sternburg doesn’t manipulate her photos and she definitely doesn’t hide herself. In some of the images, you can ever so slightly discern her presence.
To her, starting photography at a late age actually seems like “a great gift.” Instead of focusing on raising awareness about her work (“I never went around saying, ‘Oh, look at my slides!’ I felt too old to do that,” Sternburg jokes), she continued to photograph the things that interested her. Hanging the photographs in her home eventually got the attention of many an important visitor (including the president of the Seoul Institute of the Arts).
Tucked away amidst stunning greenery, Sternburg and Lavine’s ample home in Sherman Oaks also serves as her studio. It’s the official home for the CalArts president but Sternburg decided to make it a gallery, of sorts. She’s hung her photos on the walls. On a table near the the kitchen, she lays out photos she wants to show to the printer. Stacks of books crowd around the photographs. One of the couple’s two poodles follows Sternburg, moving with her as she goes from photo to photo throughout the house.
Her recently released book, Overspilling World, includes photographs Sternburg took with disposable cameras and early iPhone cameras. It includes writing by Sternburg as well as by photographer Catherine Opie, filmmaker Wim Wenders and more.
Mexico still plays a big role in Sternburg’s life. With a house in San Miguel de Allende, she visits often. The recipe books in her kitchen include a large volume called Mexico: The Cookbook, the New York Times bestseller by Margarita Carrillo Arronte.
Which is not to say L.A. doesn’t also influence her. Some of the photos in Overspilling World were taken on Melrose. If you try hard enough, you might find the reflection of white peaks of farmers market tents in the many layers of one photo. But Sternburg hopes viewers don’t get so caught up in the location and details but enjoy the overall sensation the photo produces.
“I had a big solo show in New York,” Sternburg says. “And a friend of ours, the choreographer Trisha Brown, came and she looked at these huge ones and she said, 'I want to walk in them.' She didn’t want to know what they were, she just wanted to be inside them, and I thought, 'That’s it!'”
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Sternburg often thinks about “the mystery that no one talks about,” a phrase she coined in reference to whether photographers are fully aware of each and every element in their images. To illustrate what she means, she points out a photo of two mannequins. Two wheels of a car are almost perfectly centered above their crotches.
There’s power in seeing, and in really looking, Sternburg explains. Particularly in light of recent political events.
“I know a lot of artists are running around saying, ‘What am I supposed to make? I’m supposed to do work that is a response to this,'” Sternburg says. “It’s about being in this way, not taking anything at its first, second or even third level.”
That might be Sternburg’s second major lesson: Just take a second and look more closely at what you might take for granted every day.