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introductory essay to Stranger Passing
by Douglas R. Nickel describes this book as a collection of portraits. But this strikes me as misleading: although
each photograph does feature one or more people posing for their picture to be
taken, in an important sense, the picture is not about them. The names of the subjects are not given in
the titles of the pictures, although the occasion, place and date are given. For example, in A Man Heading Out to the
Hightway, Casa Grande, Arizona, August 1999, shows a man on a deserted road,
half sitting, half leaning on a shopping cart containing his possessions and a
twenty-four-pack of beer cans, with a beer in his hand, and, above, a dark sky
promising heavy rain. The man looks at
the camera with a hint of defiance, but he looks like he has been through a
Nickel in fact recognizes that
Sternfelds work is a categorization of American social life rather than a set
of portraits of individuals, and he makes an interesting claim.
If the pictures reflect a growing split in this
country, it is less between rich and poor than between the commodity cultures
of a lower middle class and an upper middle class, Americas poor wear the
T-shirts and baseball caps of the former, its rich consume the bottled water
and designer labels of the latter.
is certainly right about the ubiquity of manufacturers names on clothing and
the spoiling of the landscape with the logos of multinational corporations, but
Im not convinced that theres a strong cultural divide in peoples relation to
commodification, or that this is a major theme in Sternfelds work. Nevertheless, class is undeniably a theme of these
pictures. Rich and poor people pose in
ways that are almost shockingly revealing about contemporary America. There are people who are obviously wealthy,
and at best they look complacent, at worst they look like they have sold their
souls to the devil, immersed in frivolous concerns. In stark contrast, the poor are working hard, look like that have
been knocked around by life, or are more cheerful and at ease with themselves
than any of the people Sternfeld photographs.
Class difference and the role of
money and privilege in the USA are important topics, and I applaud Sternfelds
readiness to raise the consciousness of his audience. But the images with humor or those that catch quirky cultural
oddities are my favorites. Boys
Walking Home after School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, May 1999, shows two boys
who look like they are in junior high, in a rural suburb with carefully kept
lawns and pristine streets, dressed up like inner city black youth, with baggy
pants several sizes too big and portable CD player with huge headphones. Motorcyclists, Portland, Maine, August 1992
shows a man on a motorcycle, probably in his thirties, wearing goggles and a
leather jacket; in the sidecar is a pretty baby wearing a helmet. The image presents a warm mix of
stereotypical masculinity and rebellion with nurturing manhood. A Woman with Her Ailing Mother on a
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Path, near Northampton, Massachusetts, October,
1999 shows an autumnal day with a fail older lady wearing a breathing tube on
her face being pushed by her daughter on roller skates. In A Woman on an EZ Shopper Going to
Her Car, Austin, Texas, March 1999, it isnt quite clear why she needs to get
a ride to her vehicle, -- maybe she has a disability but she looks
exhilarated and proud with her large basketful of groceries.
Many of the warmest images feature relationships
between two people, especially between parents and children. Some of the pictures of individuals catch
them at moments of pride or serenity that makes them seem interesting and even
enviable. There are also images of
emptiness and drudgery that also are intriguing. I moved to the US when I was 23, and I find books like this
helpful when, as often happens, I try to make sense of this country. Sternfeld does not try to give a
representative view of America, but he does catch a wide variety of people at
telling moments, and he does capture some of the tensions and curiosities of
contemporary culture. Even though not
all the pictures have a clear focus and lack any obvious point of interest, enough
of them are gripping and provocative enough to make Sternfeld an important
interpreter of modern life.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.