On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam is best summed up, in my mind, with a quote from Sternfeld himself. In his Afterword, on going to Central Park (in 1993) to photograph the spot where Jennifer Levin was strangled (in 1986), he writes “It was bewildering to find a scene so beautiful . . . to see the same sunlight pour down indifferently on the earth.”
Earlier in his Afterword, Sternfeld writes about his return to the United States after some time in Italy photographing for Rome after Rome. He returned to find a seeming explosion of violence. He’s unsure whether violence was actually on the rise, or, rather, whether it was simply a matter of reporting—I hold the latter opinion—and sets out to pay some attention to these sites of national and personal tragedy, to try to make some sense of what seems to be going on in the United States at the time.
I wonder what he would think about today… let me leave that for a bit, but just say that On this Site was published in 1996, and ask that you think of all the trauma we’ve all been through since then.
On this Site has some sort of kinship with Friedlander’s The American Monument, sorta. Where Friedlander focused on the utter disregard we seem to have for sites of national triumph and memory, and the ultimate banality of the things we chose to memorialize, Sternfeld focused on the way life, or rather, the world just continues to turn after tragedy, and perhaps suggests that we make memorials for other things.
When I returned to it for this review, I thought for a moment that the focus was on sites of corporate and state malfeasance. There’s Mount Rushmore, a monument to United States Government willingness to violate treaties for corporate profit if there ever was one; Heart Mountain Relocation Center, one of the places where we held citizens of Japanese descent during World War II; there’s the hotel where tobacco executives met after the first reports of links between smoking and lung cancer appeared, in 1953, and where they decided to cover up the reports with advertising sheen. But it’s really a mix, more or less. It really looks at places where human persons did things (or didn’t do things) to other human persons.
It reminds me that, as much as I blame corporate persons and government entities for social problems, there are always and only human persons, individual actors, behind every corporation and government department, and I’m reminded of (my very limited understanding) of Arendt’s theory/claim of the ultimate banality of evil.
Each photograph is straightforward, honest, the New Topographics-type landscape photography that Sternfeld is known for, and a short, just-the-facts statement of the event that happened at the pictured site accompanies each one. There is very little judgement in the text and it’s all fairly dry, reportage type statements of fact. That said, it’s all tragedy, personal/local or national.
Now. I regularly have a hard time separating a photograph from whatever it depicts. I know that it’s not a pipe, but, really, all I see is the pipe. I only rarely glimpse the fabrication of it, and even then it’s only askance. I don’t really ever recognize it. And with On this Site I find it nearly impossible to just look at the pictures. It doesn’t help that text draws my eye in ways that pictures don’t. I read every bit of text that comes my way and stare longingly at text in other languages, other characters, for much longer than I look at pictures. What the hey am I doing reviewing photobooks then, huh?
Well… I’ll just leave that, and return to something I mentioned above.
What would this book look like today? I mean, Sternfeld shot for On this Site in the early and mid-1990s, when 24 hour news was just hitting its stride on cable television. Now, it’s more like a 24 minute (2.4 minute? 24 second?) cycle, and while we remain outraged by rape, child abuse, kidnapping, murder, and the like, there’s just so much more outrage these days. Sternfeld shot the Stonewall Inn to pay tribute to the Rebellion and document the first twitch toward acceptance of homosexuality in the culture. How would we handle LGBTQIA+ and the various sites of trauma there? How would we document #BlackLivesMatter? #Occupy? #MeToo? He photographed the Post Office where Patrick Henry Sherrill killed those 14 coworkers before committing suicide. How many malls, movie theaters, schools would we need to memorialize from the epidemic of mass shootings?
In that, On this Site is definitely of its time. It’s definitely 25 years old. Where American Prospects is somehow timeless (that remains to be seen, but it has aged into a sort of nostalgic timelessness, for me anyway), On this Site came out before 9/11, before the Dot Com Bust and market crashes of 2007/8, before Columbine. The photography, when I can look at it in and of itself, is fine, well composed and all, and it definitely captures the indifference of sunlight, but its subjects are of things we’d rather forget, things that, while awful, horrible, have largely been supplanted in the national psyche by later, sometimes greater, tragedies or by soundbites and one-liners. Neither of my stepsons, both now in their early twenties, were born when On this Site came out, so they’ll be unlikely to feel anything about most of the events, beyond historical curiosity.
If you appreciate Sternfeld’s work and already have his other stuff, On this Site is worth picking up. If you’re unfamiliar with Sternfeld, check out American Prospects instead. Yes, used copies are almost twice that of On this Site, but it’s the one. On this Site is more of a historical curiosity than anything, worth having if you’re a completionist like me and/or just love Sternfeld, but not his best, I think.
Edit: one thing I should mention… The structure of the book. A frontspiece shows a statue of a small child, a monument to a(ll) victims of gun violence made from melted-down guns. A single picture after the Afterword and Acknowledgments, shows the California mosque where members of the Crips and Bloods street gangs met and negotiated a truce in 1992. Both of these show the sort of better angels of our nature. If the 40 or so pictures of violence and malfeasance, greed and predation, show the worst of us, Sternfeld bookends this with some community spirit, some hope. The sun really is indifferent, and there’s always a chance to be better, to move beyond. I think these two pictures, and there placement in the book, lift it somewhat. It’s still of its time, but there’s an everlasting optimism to these two pictures that gives it a little something extra.