March 4, 2007 The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts
72 x 88 1/2 in. (182.9 x 224.8 cm)
(American 1944 - )
Medium and Support:
digital color print
Gund Gallery Collection; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Graham Gund ’63
Beneath a weighted blanket of looming winter clouds sleeps a vast, frozen plain near the Oxbow River in North Hampton, Massachusetts. Artist Joel Sternfeld has returned to this site on many occasions since 1978 when he first encountered it while traveling to photograph the country. The location is a field from the 1836 painting by Thomas Cole entitled “View from Mount Holyoke, North Hampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (Oxbow),” an iconic masterpiece of American landscape painting juxtaposing the pastoral idyll of neatly farmed plots with the sublime power of the untamed wooded wilderness. In Sternfeld’s view seen here, muddied ice stretches widely beneath a crisp, almost colorless blanket of snow that spreads evenly over the flat agricultural field, anchoring the stiff remnants of corn and potato plants that once grew there, and locking the barren forest on the horizon into the fragile earth. At first look, there is nothing remarkable about this landscape except for its desolation, but Sternfeld invites us to contemplate the emptiness as visual poetry, which emerges quietly through the subtle horizontal bands of alternating steel and rusty grey tones, evoking the numbing cold and constant stillness of late winter’s doldrums. As a pioneer in color photography in the 1970s, and trained in the color theory of Josef Albers and Johannes Itten, Sternfeld is known for his sensitivity to the visual qualities of his subject matter, which he represents in large-format photographs to convey emotional subtleties with either intimacy or grandeur. Known for his photographic series of people and landscapes, Sternfeld also uses his camera to gradually reveal his point of view about a subject. This photograph of the East Meadows is part of the artist’s meditation on Cole’s 19th-century representation of agriculture and the primeval forest, which could be read as a premonitory statement about human intervention into nature. Sternfeld’s landscape may also suggest the pending detriment of our natural world: the haunting beauty of the scene reminds us of what we stand to lose, but the melancholic tone of this ashen sky and empty meadow implies it may be too late for renewal.