Portraits of America which really make you think

Review by Lucy Hayes

JOEL Sternfeld's large format photographic portraits of people in America at the Photographers' Gallery seek to challenge stereotypes of people, class, professions, physical appearance and sexual orientation in America.

The majority of photographs are of ordinary citizens shot against various rural, surburban and city setting backdrops and date from the 1970's to the present day, from several of Sternfeld's collections, predominantly Stranger Passing - collected portraits and American prospects.

Some pictures initially provoke a more angered and instant response than others, such as the shot of four firemen in Texas, putting out a house fire (pictured left). Three of the men are putting out the blaze in the background, while the remaining fireman is crouching down in the front left-hand side of the shot, in a field, choosing a Halloween pumpkin form the various scattered outside a corner shop! The immediate and obvious response is 'why'?!

Why, if there is a fire raging is he shopping for a pumpkin? Isn't he being completely and utterly irresponsible, selfish, and endangering possible lives in the fire and abandoning his team in doing so?

On the flip side, however, although a very controversial shot, the context of this exhibition is to challenge stereotypes and that of the fireman always being the hero. So could be be revealing a flaw in the hero ethic? Is he trying to say that fires are the norm for them and that he is merely taking a 'break' amidst a stable fire, just as 'office' workers do?

Another image I found very powerful was A Webdesigner Walking Home, which seeks to challenge the stereotypical view of appearance, possible income, work and residential abode for such a job. The man in the picture has long hair and a beard and is wearing ripped jeans and a shirt. He is standing in front of a mound of dirt and the backdrop for this shot seems to be a derelict wasteland site.

Summer Interns Having Lunch is a shot of what appears to be two young boys, probably 16, but looking 12, suited and booted, sitting on a bench, enthusiastically eating hotdogs and earnestly reading a paper in a backdrop of Wall Street. They seem to represent the up-and-coming whizkid hotshot suits of the future, and it comes across as eerie, as they are but children succumbing to the rat race and the illusion of grandeur at such a young age.

A Woman Out Shopping With Her Pet Rabbit (pictured right) seeks to expose the eccentricities and fashion consciousness of the surburbanites. A woman in a fuscia pink power suit and shoes clutches a labelled shopping bag and a matching pink rabbit cage containing her pet rabbit. This woman either confirms the label she has been given, or she could simply be on the way back from the vet! However, the keeping up appearances label is still intact, whatever the scenario.

A Farmer Taking A Break In Iowa, at a glance viewing, appears to be just that, a middle-aged woman in jeans, boots resting against some hay. However, as you scrutinise the picture further, you see that she has a lit cigarette in her hand, which would still cause no offence, unless you were a non-smoker, and that the subtitle under the picture reads that she has cancer of the thyroid, which immediately makes the picture extremely shocking.

Other shots are historic and contain people, yet focus on past events; a renegade elephant lies exhausted in the middle of a country road and is hosed down by a sympathetic helper, and a flash flood buries and fossilises expensive cars and houses.

The exhibition is definitely thought-provoking and able to evoke all kinds of emotions in the viewer. It offers a valuable insight into American people and their lives. It ran until January 26, 2003.

The Photographers' Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7HY. (Tel: 020 7831 1772). Nearest Tube: Leicester Sq

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