Janet Sternburg: Sensuous Ethnography, Cultural Migrations, Inimitable Praxis

Depending on the city you live in, there are any number of ways to traverse the cityscape. If living in a major metropolis with sound infrastructure, there are numerous options: public transportation, overground and underground, ideal for longer trips without the hassle of parking, walking, or, if you so dare, unfold a trusty Brompton and cycle the congested streets. The crush of activity, the sensory overload, our determination to get from point to point, oftentimes override the time it takes to take a closer look at the very environment that supports the foundation of what we call culture. While organizational structures are invisible to retinal perception, ethnographic observation, for those who care to engage, is practiced, learned, and exhibited. Exhibiting perception may be construed as the domain of writers, artists, and academics. However, perception is shaped through complex filtration systems made up of marketers, entrepreneurs, and pundits. Everyone is exposed to the myriad ways information reaches us, how it’s processed is dependent on any number of personal variables.

The trouble with Janet Sternburg’s work is there’s nothing to see. Confoundedly so. And so we look again. The closer you look, the more the images dissipate. Depth of field is expansive and at once compressed. There’s the realization that it’s not about formal composition, or looking, or knowing, or acknowledging the image’s subjectivity, it’s recognizing our own perceptive near misses. Sternburg isn’t interested in verisimilitude because there is no such thing. It’s about placing the body in relation to fleeting glances, a mirage, reflective dissipations that occur often but are uniquely underscored by location and date stamp. A passer by who catches our eye, no matter how hard we try, within minutes their features dissipate, ephemeral glimpses of unknown objectives that mark the passage of time.

The strength of Sternburg’s work is that she never tries to be clever, cajole for the sake of reaction, or teach. Her images are like being simultaneously underwater, above ground, and looking back into the abyss without oxygen. They’re disconcerting, distracting, nebulous and at once painterly. A glimpse of life unfolding, caught in the memory of touch—redolent—and the remembrance of familiar sounds that place the body in specific historical contexts. The edges of objects are blurred, mercurial, inky. Photographs are taken with disposable cameras and iPhones. Point and shoot. Zero manipulation. Instant gratification, without fussing about over or under exposure, depth of field, or focus. A collection of lucky glimpses that we all have but few actually notice.

Overspilling World, is a monograph documenting Sternburg’s last two decades of work. As an accomplished writer, Sternburg first picked up the camera in 1998 while visiting San Miguel de Allende. Since that time, Sternburg reinforces Wittgenstein, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” When the limits of language limit the world in which the author can no longer express through words what may be better stated through images, she placed her body in the environment and into culture. The return of the body is not an exaltation of its sensuous functions, but rather the placement as documentarian within a world of fleeting moments.

When thinking about Sternburg’s work through an ethnographic lens, it is Dwight Conquergood who emphasized the importance of rigor, especially through length of time spent in the field and the “depth of commitment, and risks (bodily, physical, emotional) taken to acquire cultural understanding.” Fieldwork, as Conquergood states, is always “open air,” rather than “arm chair.” In other words, Sternburg’s documentation is always through the placement of herself within culture rather than researched cerebrally. What becomes evident, and differentiates her work from investment and placement in one particular location, is that her images are collected from many different cities throughout the world over a twenty year period. What is perhaps an unintentional observation is the timelessness of her imagery. Sternburg’s interest in old cars, their reflections in shop windows naturally superimposed on naked mannequins, becomes a guessing game as to when and where the images were taken. Sternburg’s participation is clear; her investment is measured both in volume, but perhaps more importantly, corporeal exposure over duration.

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