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Joel Sternfeld, On This Site—The Stonewall Inn

By Dr. Chris Balaschak
Joel Sternfeld, "The Stonewall Inn, 53 Christopher Street, New York, February 1994," in On This Site, chromogenic print © Joel Sternfeld
Joel Sternfeld’s photograph, On This Site—The Stonewall Inn, captures the storefront window of a bar, The Stonewall Inn, located at 53 Christopher Street, in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City. Sternfeld’s image is suffused with the red glow of the bar’s neon sign, a tone that refracts off the fallen snow in the plant box beneath the window, and amplifies the oversized ruffled Valentine’s Day heart, and the reddish-brown brick of the building. The photograph is at once warm and stark: the picture plane runs parallel to the window, flattening the image, and giving it a graphic, almost poster-like quality.
The simplicity and frankness of the photograph betray the context that lies beyond the picture’s frame. An accompanying caption reads:
"Patrons of this gay bar were arrested and beaten in a routine early morning police raid on June 28, 1969. In the nights that followed, hundreds of men and women demonstrated in the streets of Greenwich Village, despite the continued threat of police violence. These events came to be known as the Stonewall Rebellion."
The Stonewall Rebellion would last for several more days, through July 3, and what was at first a spontaneous demonstration became a political movement. In the years to follow, the location would host Christopher Street Liberation Day, and what would become an annual tradition of Gay Pride marches. Ironically, Sternfeld’s image discloses no violence, no outward signs of Pride, no marks indicating the historical importance of this place. That knowledge rests in the caption, or knowledge of the site, rather than in the image.
Joel Sternfeld, "Central Park, north of the Obelisk, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993," in On This Site, chromogenic print © Joel Sternfeld
Like other images from the “On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam” series, The Stonewall Inn juxtaposes an apparently banal landscape with a caption that reveals the striking violence that took place at that location. Other photographs from that series included the nondescript roadside at 11777 Foothill Blvd. in Los Angeles where Rodney King was assaulted by four white police officers on March 3, 1991, and the façade of the former Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, outside which Emmett Till allegedly said “Bye, Baby” to a white woman in 1955 (and for which he was murdered). In "Central Park, North of the Obelisk, Behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 1993," the photograph captures dappled, orange light, cast across the trunk of a tree. The earth is unsettled, and the space beneath the tree’s canopy feels warm and inviting. Surrounding grass, a road, and a building frame the area, providing a point of perspective and scale. What is concealed by the image, which Sternfeld would call “bewildering . . . a scene so beautiful,” is revealed in its accompanying text:
"Jennifer Levin and Robert Chambers were seen leaving Dorrian’s Red Hand, an Upper East Side bar, at 4:30 A.M. on August 26, 1986. Her body was found beneath this crab apple tree in Central Park at 6:15 A.M. that same morning. An autopsy revealed that she had been strangled. She was eighteen years old when she died. Chambers, who was nineteen at the same time of the crime, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter."
As may be clear from these examples, Sternfeld’s choice of historical events ranged from moments that inspired social movements, to tragedies that have elicited relatively little historical attention.
By 1994, Sternfeld had established himself as a master of color photography. His early body of work, called American Prospects, featured photographs of America’s vernacular landscapes—sites of tourism, commerce, and conviviality—and Sternfeld’s use of color only heightened his tendency to capture peculiar juxtapositions, rendering seemingly banal spaces beautiful. As he would later write about making his earliest color photographs, “a different sense quickly came over me: perhaps it did because of a heightened color awareness triggered by all the thinking about the interaction of color, but suddenly the ugly scene appeared beautiful to me.” [1] Color photography elicits references to popular media and amateur photography, and was adopted relatively late by fine art photographers, Sternfeld’s use of color photography is also a statement about photography’s documentary tendencies. As noted above, color photography signified tourism, commercial portraiture, and popular print media, and not the objectivity of a documentary.
With On This Site, Sternfeld makes a statement about photography’s limits as a historical document. The work can be seen as part of a broader trend in American photography in the final decades of the 20th century, when photographers such as Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula, and writers like Janet Malcolm and Susan Sontag, questioned the notion that documentary photography was transparent and free of bias. The aim of these artists and critics was to reveal how the ways in which a photograph is presented, such as how a caption or label written by someone other than the photographer, might relay meanings from beyond the image itself. While photographic documents may be historical records, documentary photography narrates such history. Sternfeld’s work makes us aware of the disjunction between a photographic image and its accompanying text, recognizing the inconsistencies between these two forms of language.

On This Site

On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam was published in 1996 as a photobook, or an intentional sequence of photographs meant to be read and understood as a whole. While the fifty-one photographs in the photobook are not arranged geographically or chronologically, a central idea binds them together. As the book’s inscription reads, the work is “For those who will not forget.” It is a line reinforced in the book’s untitled afterword, where Sternfeld wrote, “I set out to photograph sites that were marked during my lifetime.” [2] How these sites are “marked” is not apparent in the photographs themselves. As with The Stonewall Inn, the photographs in On This Site are all vacant, devoid of human activity, and absent of any outward indication of the tragic events that occurred there. Sternfeld’s photograph is tightly cropped, revealing little of the surrounding area, not to mention the Inn’s interior. Contrasting the piled snow, the red neon glow in the window conveys warmth, comfort, and a happiness disrupted by the violence mentioned in Sternfeld’s caption. Taken as a whole, On This Site reminds us of the many tragedies that have marked American history and yet remain unmarked, on-site and in the present. Sternfeld’s texts are the reminder of the events themselves, while the photographs insinuate how easy it may be to forget.
[1] Joel Sternfeld, “Color Interaction and the Color Photograph,” Writings, May 29, 2020.
[2] Joel Sternfeld, Untitled Afterword, On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), n.p.
Additional resources
Kate Palmer Albers, “Joel Sternfeld’s Empty Places,” Environmental History 20, no. 1 (January 2015): pp. 113–119.
Joel Sternfeld, On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996).
Catherine Zuromskis, “Crimes Seen and Unseen: Fantasies and Failures of Photographic Truth in Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site and Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography,” in Kris Belden-Adams, ed., Photography and Failure: One Medium’s Entanglement with Flops, Underdogs, and Disappointments (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017), pp. 81–93.
Essay by Dr. Chris Balaschak

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