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]


Assignment 1: Encountering Culture (Additional Photographer Research)

After researching into Joel Sternfeld and his series On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam, I decided to take the book out of the library so I could view the images in person and see how they were presented. This would also give me ideas of how I could present my final images. I did want to view the book sooner into my assignment however I had to file for a reservation in the library which took time. After finally getting hold of the book I was exited and intrigued as to how the work was displayed within the book and how this affected the way in which I viewed the images.

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The book allowed me to see details within the images which I had previously missed when viewing the pictures online. The text accompanying the image on the white page next to it gave me a greater insight into the context of the image. In turn, this allowed me to have an emotional connection to the individual image and the series as a whole. This is something I am going to take into consideration when presenting my final images.

While I was in the library I found a photobook by a photographer which I had never heard of before and thought their work would be helpful to look into for this assignment. I found Greg Girard’s Phantom Shanghai series very moving. Although the series is not shot using an anallogue camera, nor is in black and white, the images still tell a story and create an eerie atmosphere.

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House on Songshan Lu (2005)
Huangpi Lu House (2005)

The series shows how the city of Shanghai has transformed itself in the early years of the 21st Century. As Shanghai modernises and becomes a mega city, the buildings and neighbourhoods which were once preserved in many cases by accident are now being demolished. Girard has been photographing the effects of this transformation since 1998. He has managed to capture how buildings, shops, homes and neighbourhoods are being turned to rubble during the process of urban development. This unique series of images allowed me to gain a further insight into how other cities around the world respond to urban decay and buildings which have fallen into disrepair. This series of images has really inspired me and made me think of the wider context surrounding the image. This is something I want my audience to gain from my images.

Another photographers work I researched into was Jeff Brouws. Having briefly viewed his work in a lecture, I wanted to know more about his series Discarded Landscape. Although this series is shot in colour, his style of photography is very similar to his black and white analogue series Twenty Six Abandoned Gasoline stations. In this series Brouws’ work is presented in the form of a diptych and I think that this method of presentation works very well. It allowed me as a viewer to see more of the scene in the frame and therefore see the scale of the abandoned area.

Abandoned House near Chene Avenue, Detroit, Michigan (1999)

Brouws stated that “Photographs always exist in a context—they are laden with social or political meaning” (Landscape Stories 2011) and this is an idea which he explored closely for twenty years. Having experienced a philosophical affinity with the New Topographic’s movement and how this acted as documentation for the impacts the suburban world had on the natural one, he wanted to get to the core of the issue. Through his images Brouws asked how suburbanisation after World War 2 affected the city centres in America and what the consequences were as America moved from an urban lifestyle of high density living to a suburban lifestyle.

By the mid 1990’s Brouws turned his attention to discarded landscapes which were composed of abandoned manufacturing sites he “wanted to investigate these obscure parts of our social landscape, environments shaped by a devolving decay.” (Landscape Stories 2011). While reading an interview Brouws did on this series of work I picked up on a key point which links directly to my own assignment. Brouws explains how photography plays a vital role in our understanding of social issues and social structures, and this is something I aim to show in my work as well.

Assignment 1: Encountering Culture (Further research + Idea Development)

Within my images I want to create a narrative so the viewer can begin to unpick the different parts of the image and create a story about the context of the image. From the image the viewer should be able to imagine the story behind what happened at a certain location or the story behind the object which I have photographed. Therefore I have researched into other photographers work which has a similar theme to mine and also a similar way of showing a narrative in their work. After reflecting on my research and initial thoughts I have become more interested on how the areas and objects which I chose to photograph reflect the type of person who lives there or who discarded the object and how this is a reflection of their identity. I aim to raise the questions about the person such as…from the environment or objects photographed does this person or group of people appear to be in conflict or in harmony with society? and perhaps what does it say about their culture and attitudes?

The assignment brief states that we have to use analogue cameras, at first I thought this would limit me to the types of things i could photograph because I only have a small amount of shots on one roll of film however it will make me think more about what I am trying to show in the image. However one elemement which I am most apprehensive about is shooting in black and white film. The darkroom only allows us to develop black and white film, therefore if I shot with colour film I would not be able to develop my film. On the other hand, the use of black and white film may make the different textures and tones within the environment become more prominent and rule out distractions within the image which colour would emphasise. I have limited experience in shooting with an analogue camera  therefore I am going to be using a 35mm camera in order to produce my images as I personally find it easier to use and it is more compact which makes it easier for me to move from location to location.

In order to understand my theme better and explore new styles of working which are very different from my own I conducted further research into photographers and their bodies of work.

Joel Sternfeld

One of the photographers I looked into was Joel Sternfeld and in particular his series On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. I am also going to take this book out of the library to see first hand how the book is presented. We had talked briefly about his work in one of our lectures and from then on I have been interested in his work. Sternfeld photographed what appeared to be serene urban and rural landscapes. However once the viewer begins to understand the context behind them, which is supported by text they become much more significant and a deeper meaning is formed. Sternfeld describes the series as a “list of places [he] cannot forget because of the tragedies that identify them.” I found this series very interesting and it highlighted to me the importance of a caption or small piece of text to accompany the image and how this can change the way the audience views the image. This is something I am going to take into consideration when presenting my final images.

On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam, The Happy Land Social Club

The Happy Land Social Club was a popular, unlicensed Honduran social club. On March 25, 1990, Julio Gonzalez was thrown out of the club for quarreling with Lydia Feliciano, his former girlfriend and a Happy Land employee. He bought a dollar’s worth of gasoline, poured a trail of gas from the street through the club’s single doorway, ignited it, and left. The fire killed eighty-seven people. Lydia Feliciano was one of five survivors.

On This Site: Landscape In Memoriam, The Northwest Corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues

On April 29, 1992, four white police officers on trial for the beating of motorist Rodney King were acquitted. A videotape of King’s beating had been extensively televised. The not guilty verdicts became a catalyst for widespread civil unrest. Riots began with several mob assaults at this intersection. Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, was pulled from his truck and severely beaten as a camera crew broadcast the event live from a news helicopter. The Los Angeles Riots caused more than fifty deaths and an estimated one billion dollars worth of damage.

Another key element I noticed when looking further into this body of work is that many of the places he photographed did not show any signs of the tragic events which happened there. This links back to one of our lectures which discussed the truth in photographs. For me these images question how much truth a photograph can hold and how he can only represent what he sees and the key to understanding the image is for the viewer to create the context from what they see and what they already know. I aim to work on a similar concept in my image. That the viewer creates the context themselves and from this a deeper meaning is formed about the culture of the place and the history behind it. Another idea I had relating to this is for the viewer to image what else lies beyond the frame.

Eirik Johnson 

Sawdust Mountain
Sawdust Mountain

Johnson went back to photograph the forests and mountains he grew up playing in. The photographs symbolise the icons of the region and begin to address how the landscape is intrinsically linked to the Northwest identity and the people who live and work there. Johnson explores the relationship between how the natural resources of landscape support the communities, this reinforces the idea that the environment in which you live shapes the culture in which you live. One of the elements I found most interesting about this series of work is it highlights how the logging industry is at odds with the ideal of a sustainable method of timber logging. As the industry begins to decline and the mills shut down it depicts how the surrounding communities have suffered. This is another element within his work which I want to try and embed within my own work within this assignment. Perhaps I could visit locations within coventry which have been effected by deindustrialisation and how this has effected the people there and the types of environment in which they live in.

It also made me question whether the peoples identities were intrinsically linked to the culture and area there were brought up in. Although the images do not contain any human presence it is very obvious how they have shaped the landscape and what activities occur there. This concept interested me greatly and related back to some of my previous research on human presence within an image. By these images not being populated it allows the viewer to spend more time looking deeper into the image and therefore they spend more time contemplate the image. It also allows the viewer to imagine what is beyond the frame. This not only captures the viewers attention for longer it draws them in and creates a studium. I want to be able to do this in my series of 10 images.