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Stranger PassingReview - Stranger Passing
by Joel Sternfeld
Bulfinch Press, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 4th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 1)

The 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 lot. 

            Nickel in fact recognizes that Sternfeld’s 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, America’s poor wear the T-shirts and baseball caps of the former, its rich consume the bottled water and designer labels of the latter.”

Nickel is certainly right about the ubiquity of manufacturers’ names on clothing and the spoiling of the landscape with the logos of multinational corporations, but I’m not convinced that there’s a strong cultural divide in people’s relation to commodification, or that this is a major theme in Sternfeld’s 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 Sternfeld’s 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 isn’t 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.

Christian Perring, 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.


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