154MC: Walking the High Line by Joel Sternfeld – An Extended Critical Reflection

walking the high line

Sternfeld trekked through the untamed wilderness of the New York High Line with a large format 8 by 10 inch Matthew Brady style camera for one year. He documented and captured the beauty of the High Line throughout the seasons in an attempt to help Friends of the High Line’s campaign to save the elevated tracks from being demolished. The images are deeply concerned with the degrading and capricious landscape of an urban relic and provide documentation and a social commentary on the state of the once grand but now degenerate High Line that ran above the Lower West Side of Manhattan.

The tenuous balance of nature and culture in Sternfeld’s work is very apparent in this body of work; however the roles have reversed. In Sternfeld’s previous work he highlights how humans have impacted the natural environment, yet in Walking the High Line, Sternfeld presents to the viewer an alternative and unseen view of New York. A world where nature has reclaimed an urban environment. The images reveal a hybrid landscape of flora and fauna that was untouched by humans for over two decades, a rare spectacle in a city where nearly every square inch has been taken over by real estate and development.

The images in Walking the High Line bear a similar relation to that of his earlier colour work, such as American Prospects and On this Site. Sternfeld’s attention to detail and colour palettes are just some of the factors which make his images so distinctive. Colour functions as a tool as well as an art form that connects the different elements in his images together and resonates profoundly with the viewer. In essence, colour to Sternfeld is what the decisive moment was to Henry Cartier-Bresson. In today’s image flood it is difficult to escape over saturated and heavily edited images however, Sternfeld’s work is refreshing. Incorporating his own extensive knowledge of colour theory into each of his images, the pastel and slightly under saturated palettes have become deeply rooted within his work and play an integral part in conveying narrative. In addition, the Bauhaus concept of balancing colour has greatly underpinned his portraits and landscapes.

A less sensitive observer would see weeds and ruin yet Sternfeld was able to see the hidden beauty in the changing light and colours. The full bleed double sided images in the book allow the viewer to seamlessly transition from one season to the next and allow the viewer to see the High Line through the eyes of Sternfeld. The large images in the book allow the viewer to get up close to the High Line and pick out details of the changing landscape. From the rich rustic browns and oranges of the Autumn time which embody the tones of the surrounding factories, right through to the lush and vibrant green meadows Sternfeld has managed to take the viewer to another world. At first glance it appears that Sternfeld has superimposed these landscapes to create a surreal dream world in the sky that runs through New York. However it was this beauty of the changing seasons on the High Line that first captured Sternfeld’s attention. The images embody his admiration for the ever-changing landscape and pay homage to how nature and the urban environment can coexist, even if there is a struggle to begin with.

The composition of the images centers on the path that Sternfeld walked. As a viewer we are able to see that in some areas of the track it was so dense with foliage that what lay beyond the path was unclear. This in itself can be seen as an allegory for the fractured social history of the surrounding landscape and also the once uncertain future of the High Line. The effect the images had on the public was comparable to the impact William Henry Jackson’s first images of Yellowstone had over 100 years a go. The book captured the public’s attention and the unseen world of the High Line resonated with them deeply.

Sternfeld’s book Walking the High Line played a fundamental role in saving the High Line and gaining support for the preservation of such a unique and monumental piece of engineering. The images were widely reproduced and acted as a catalyst and focal point for the campaign to save the High Line and turn it into a public park. The images sparked debate and got people talking about the High Line again.

In The New Yorker in 2001, Adam Gopnik published an article and praised Sternfeld as the “poet keeper of the High Line” [Gopnik 2001: 48] and in the back of the book it features one of his essays about the making of Sternfeld’s work. Gopnik’s essay gives the reader more context about the making of the images and why they were so influential, as well as further information about what the High Line has been turned into. However the first essay by John Stilgoe approaches the High Line in a more historical manner, discussing past explorers and the history of the railroad. Although Stilgoe’s essay adds historical context and highlights the importance of the railroad in history, in places it can often drag, causing the meaning behind his words can become lost and fragmented. As a result the reader may lose interest in an essay that could potentially be very poignant.

Without Sternfeld’s images and the Walking the High Line book, the campaign may not have had the support it had. Subsequently the High Line would cease to exist today. Sternfeld sought every way to gain more exposure for his work in order to raise awareness of the High Line. As well as working with the German art publisher to create his book he also coordinated a show at the Pace/McGill Gallery. As a result, Sternfeld has managed to create a quintessential book that documented an important chapter in the city’s history.


1000 Words Magazine (2015) Photo Book Essays and Interviews [online] available from http://www.1000wordsmag.com/interviews/ [8 April 2015] Bauhaus Online (2015) Paul Klee Colour Theory [online] available from http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/das-bauhaus/lehre/unterricht-paul-klee [9 April 2015] Bunyan, M. (2012) Joel Sternfeld: Colour Photography since 1970 [online] available from http://artblart.com/2012/10/03/exhibition-joel-sternfeld-colour-photographs-since-1970-at-albertina-vienna/ [9 April 2015] Friends of the High Line (2002) New York Voices: Joel Sternfeld. [online] available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNzr7g8FQgk [9 April 2015] Friends of the High Line (2015) Information about the High Line [online] available from http://www.thehighline.org/ [8 April 2015] Frieze Magazine (2003) Joel Sternfeld’s Work [online] available from http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/joel_sternfeld/ [9 April 2015] Lekach, M. (2015) Bauhaus Colour Movement. [online] available from http://99designs.com/designer-blog/2013/08/15/know-your-design-history-the-bauhaus-movement/ [9 April 2015] Sternfeld, J., Stilgoe., Gopnik, A. (2001) Joel Sternfeld: Walking the High Line. Germany: Steidl, Göttingen Sundance Channel (2012) High Line Stories: Joel Sternfeld [online] available from https://vimeo.com/25597979 [9 April 2015]


Published by

Charlotte Pattinson

Photography student

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