Joel Sternfeld on Robert Frank
February 7, 2008
I happened to come across a copy of the new Steidl Spring/Summer catalog, only to discover that my photo teacher, mentor and all around favorite photographer, Joel Sternfeld had written a beautiful essay about his photo inspiration, Robert Frank. If you have ever met Joel, you probably already know he loves to tell stories and he is very good at it, as a former student I have heard a lot of them.
I remember with perfect clarity the day he brought Frank’s book to class and told us how he used to sleep with it every night and return to its pages over and over to decode its secrets. So reading his essay, I recognized the emotion in Joel’s voice about being present for the last printing of The Americans under Mr. Frank’s supervision. It must be pretty incredible to realize you have accomplished your dream and reached the level of your mentor. To me, American Prospects sits shoulder to shoulder with The Americans as a seminal photographic body of work. The same way Joel poured of Robert Franks images, countless numbers of photographers have obsessed over his images. What makes photography a wonderful medium, is that when you see Joel’s photo’s, Frank is there, embedded in the the Sternfeld photographic language. But Joel’s vision is also his own.
At the start of my photographic journey, I was dating someone in England. It was a very strange time in my life. September 11th had shaken up my world. I was back in collage in my late twenties and totally unsure of what to do with my life, and working for next to nothing. While visiting my boyfriend, he took me a a show at the Tate Modern called Cruel & Tender. At the time, I had only vague notions of August Sander, The Becher’s and Stephen Shore. Lewis Baltz, Reineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff, Fazal Sheikh, Gursky, and Robert Adams were all new discoveries. That day, I can honestly say, changed my life. As cheesy as it sounds, it was if a light was turned on inside of me looking at all of these bodies of work at once. I was more familiar with Eggelston, Arbus, Evans and Frank, but I had not seen much of their work in person. I probably developed my photo aesthetic that day, and the work that I could not get over, was Frank’s. His images were grainy and simple but at the same time they were jam packed with history and emotion.
Six months later I showed up at Joel Sternfeld’s office, the day classes were scheduled to begin, without having registered or interviewed, big no no’s at Sarah Lawrence. I had no idea where to find him and it took quite a bit to finally knock on the right door. Then a man with some of the craziest hair I have ever seen opened the door and saved my life. Joel was the first teacher that ever believed in me, even when I did not. He was kind, and supportive and gave me the courage to express myself. I can never thank him enough. I was lucky enough to study with him for two years, and in that time I saw him encourage and support all of his students, regardless of their talent level, as long as they were committed to the class. Ironically, many of my classmates did not really seem to understand who they were studying with, they just thought he was funny, and late to class a lot. But I was already working in the photo industry, so I appreciated the opportunity in a different way.
To this day when ever I mention Joel’s name to another photographer, their eyes gets misty. He is the favorite of photographers. While I am now out in the world trying to make it as an artist, I often miss the creative cocoon Joel created for his students. And they return to him, like little puppy dogs, to show their work, hoping for a pat on the head. I sometimes wonder if it is overwhelming for him to have so many students out there desperate for his approval. I read an interview once with Alec Soth, where he attempted to distance his work from Joel’s influence. It sounded a little angry, I don’t know of anyone else who so directly works in Joel’s genre, but I can understand Alec’s wanting to free from the comparison. But while I was studying with him, Alec was still sending Joel his book mock-ups. I think the mentor relationship is very complicated for artists, but without guidance and inspiration from those who have already found their voice it would be next to impossible to find your own. I have been lucky enough to have several incredible photographers come into my life and help me on my way.
So for those of you who perhaps would not come across it, I am posting Joel’s homage to Mr. Frank. For both of these artists have been tremendously influential in my life as well. If any of you out there have a photo mentor, you will appreciate his essay. robert_frank_project.pdf