PETER BROWN - A Book of Days

Oxbow Archive

Joel Sternfeld

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2008

Unpaginated, $75.

This is a beautiful book. In his acknowledgements, Joel Sternfeld thanks Heinrich Steidl for creating books that are “the equivalent of art objects”. And Steidl has done that here. Oxbow Archive feels as much a boxed portfolio as it does a book. And this book is full of surprises. Tipped in photographs adorn the front and back covers. The reproductions are subtle and the colors are of the real world. The design has a straightforward clarity that disappears as one moves through the book. The paper has a sensuous heft, and the idea around which all this circulates has a sweet perfection to it. The book moves through the seasons on a small agricultural floodplain on an oxbow in the Connecticut River Valley near Northampton, Massachusetts.

Sternfeld was inspired by a painting by Thomas Cole (in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) that depicts, from the Holyoke Range in 1836, an oxbow on the river.[1] The landscape is romantic and full of drama and light. A thunderstorm has just passed, and the image is large – over six feet wide. Near the oxbow sits a small plain and it was here, in real life, that Sternfeld, for two years, made these unprepossessing photographs. To me, they are about many things, but at base they seem to be about affection – affection for land, light, weather, trees and one particular place. Within two square miles, Sternfeld gives us seventy-seven moments of linked unsentimental beauty.

So the book becomes in essence, a piece of landscape – land carefully examined. I was born within a few miles of this spot and have spent most of my summers nearby. And from what I know of this world, it’s as though Sternfeld plucked this plot of earth from the air and dropped it gently into a book. From land, to camera, to negative, to print, to page, to book. And this mundane process has created an object that rivals the place itself.

The only words of substance in the book are from Emerson: “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

Apart from these words, all else is image and date – the date each picture was taken – which faces the image across the divide of the book. That’s it. And it’s enough. We move through the year – day by day, month by month, a year that seems full.

Three small critical points – first, the town of Northampton is misspelled (in a book containing forty words!), second the book is unpaginated, so it’s almost impossible to understand from a carefully constructed map where each photograph was taken. And third, over the course of the year each month is represented by a shifting number of photographs, generally from five to seven. Poor January is ignored and beautiful June is woefully underrepresented with only two shots.

Yet… the first few times through, one revels in the subtlety of these pure landscapes. There are no people, and unlike most of Sternfeld’s prior work, no irony to speak of, no humor, and unless I am missing some hidden points involving agriculture, there is no cultural critique.

Yet all the photos are of altered landscape. Most are quiet shifts, but a few rattle around: we are confronted with a set of goose decoys in a cornfield; an abandoned and trashed-out fire pit by the river; a heartbreaking curled up dead raccoon. And these in context, set off alarms. (As would the inclusion of the interstate that now cuts through a part of the oxbow…) The rest of the photographs are as pastoral as Cole’s painting: hayfields, trees, the river, tangles of plant life, wild flowers, puddles, corn, potatoes – the land left to itself after farmers and hands have gone home. This is land that is used, and it seems to have been used well: there is agricultural diversity, the plant life is complex and the soil is obviously rich. A good piece of land, cared for and presented with care and diligence as well.

There is an X-factor in the book – the force that gives the sequence its power – and it’s difficult to put into words. Yet in image after image, a magic is rendered by Sternfeld and his large format camera, a magic of moment that springs from the landscape: a particular slant of light across corn tassels; steam rising from a creek at the back of a field; a sticklike sculpture of grass against darker trees; the infinite varieties of the color green that coexist in May; the immensity of water in the Connecticut River – on and on. It is simple noticing, nothing more, but it’s noticing and then framing at the highest pitch of awareness.

And out of this there becomes an almost musical quality to the progression of images. Lee Friedlander in his book The Desert Seen, writes in an afterword that he thinks of his sequence as a jazz solo. Oxbow Archive is more Ralph Vaughn Williams, or Aaron Copeland or Virgil Thomson or even Phillip Glass. Or a hymn. A spirituality quietly moves through these pages.

From this, the following sentiment comes to mind: “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies: Lord of all, to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise.” I don’t know if Sternfeld would be comfortable with Pierpoint’s hymn, but those words (first heard in childhood), move toward what this book becomes for me. Sternfeld does not get in the way – these images shine through him as light passes through leaves, as water flows, as clouds move across the sky, as the seasons cycle on.


[1] “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow,” 1836, Thomas Cole, Oil on canvas, 51.5×76 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1908, image copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art.