Photo Books

Joel Sternfeld: First Pictures, Shelby Lee Adams: Salt & Truth, Brian Ulrich, Gregory Halpern, Richard Misrach, Arthur Tress, Vivian Maier

BY Vince Aletti, March 1, 2012

I have a fondness (a weakness?) for photographs of the American scene, particularly street work, from Walker Evans and Robert Frank to Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Alec Soth, and judging from recent releases, it’s shared by a number of publishers. From the many titles available, don’t miss Brian Ulrich’s Is This Place Great or What (Aperture), a sad, shrewd survey of the American retail landscape in decline; A (J&L), Gregory Halpern’s restrained requiem for the Rust Belt; 1991 (Blind Spot), Richard Misrach’s stunned views of the aftermath of an especially destructive fire in Oakland; Arthur Tress’s sharply observed, occasionally surreal early work in San Francisco 1964 (Prestel); or the posthumous debut of Vivian Maier (powerHouse) in a knockout collection of black-and-white street shots that deserve comparison to Levitt, Levinstein, Friedlander, and other modern masters.

Joel Sternfeld, whose 1987 American Prospects is a classic in this field, has published a prequel of sorts in First Pictures (Steidl), a hefty collection of work made between 1971 and 1980. As one of the first photographers to ground his career in the color process, Sternfeld also set an amused, skeptical tone that’s already evident in the best of these early photographs. Although these pictures are also looser and lighter than the career-building work that came later, many of them were included in the application that helped win Sternfeld his first Guggenheim grant in 1978. And no wonder he got it; there’s real pleasure in the work—a spontaneity and spirit that still feels young, and not just because so many of his subjects are. Of the four projects brought together here, the one made in the beach town of Nags Head, North Carolina, is the most satisfying and coherent, with a wonderful feel for the lazy allure of a seaside resort full of aimless college kids. The photographs Sternfeld made at New Jersey malls could have been used to cast Saturday Night Fever or—with hardly an update—Jersey Shore. But none of this is mere froth, and there are pictures here—of a bather slumped corpse-like over a table at the beach, of a group of men in a New Orleans juke joint, of two girls at the window of a take-out shop—as potent and telling as anything Sternfeld has made since.

Salt & Truth (Candela), by Shelby Lee Adams, is his fourth book of environmental portraits made in the Appalachian hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky, where he was born and raised. His subjects are friends and former neighbors, photographed in their homes, on their porches, or out in their yards in a style reminiscent of Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men but with far more intimacy and warmth. Roger Ballen’s photographs of odd, stunted men and women also come to mind here, and Adams’s work with the “country people” he describes as “our more fragile individuals” can be just as unsettling. So it’s especially useful to hear from the photographer in a substantial, if largely self-serving, essay. Adams is rightly proud of his work and gratified when his subjects—his “brothers and sisters”—say they feel “seen” and “honored” by the images. He emphasizes his deep connection to the people and their shared “kinship and mountain awareness,” writing, “The most uninhibited place I have ever felt the right to express my humanity and creativity is in the hollers.” Clearly, the work springs from genuine mutual trust, but we have to take him at his word when he writes that “the images have been creative, therapeutic, and restorative to the families and me, and helped us all find a more positive, affirmative voice.”