Review: Oxbow Archive by Joel Sternfeld


Book Reviews, Photobooks

Oxbow Archive by Joel Sternfeld is a book that I had been looking forward to. It contains photographs taken in a small patch of land - the East Meadows - right outside the city of Northampton in Western Massachusetts. I live not ten minutes away from the East Meadows, and ever since moving here I have been thinking about landscape photography.

For the longest time, landscape photography was not something I was terribly interested in. For a start, this type of photography is dominated by the kind of stuff you find in National Geographic. Make no mistake, those photos are usually very beautiful (often in a somewhat if not totally overblown kitschy way). But I like photography to be a bit more than merely decorative (not that there’s anything wrong with it), just like, for example, I prefer Philip Roth’s books over cheap romance novels. In real life (whatever that might be) love stories do not unfold like those in romance novels, whereas the lives of Philip Roth’s protagonists appear to be plucked straight out of this world (do yourself a favour and read American Pastoral).

In the same fashion, National Geographic landscapes don’t look like real landscapes. They simply don’t. This doesn’t mean that I want my photography to be extremely descriptive. That is not the point. The point is that just as in the case of the novels I don’t want kitschy fiction. I have been to a number of extremely beautiful places, but in each and every one of them they did not look like the postcards that inevitably were being sold there - and I was glad they didn’t! A place that looked just like a postcard - how dreadful!

And then there is this other aspect of landscape photography that I somehow never see discussed anywhere, namely that most landscapes we encounter in our daily lives do not look like the desert from atop Masada or Mount Vesuvius from Sorrento or the Maroon Bells from whatever that lake is called I was standing at (I can’t remember). Most of the landscapes we are surrounded with are mundane and, yes, banal. There, I said it.

Despite the fact that the hills around Northampton and the river flowing nearby make for a stunning vista, many of the other areas around here fall into exactly that category: mundane and banal. Of course, that is no big problem unless (and here’s the crux) your idea of a landscape is what you see in National Geographic. So that is what had me excited about Oxbow Archive: The opportunity to have those mundane and banal landscapes (that I’m very familiar with) seen through the eyes of a gifted visual artist.

In many ways, Oxbow Archive does not disappoint. Its best images are stunning (some of those can be found here). They serve as a reminder that even if we don’t live in a place that matches the immediate beauty of the Maroon Bells, for example, there still is a lot of amazing beauty to discover. We just have to look.

However, in a photographic sense, I was a bit disappointed by Oxbow Archive, because while it contains a lot of great photography, unfortunately it also contains a fair amount of work that is, well, not that great. The book would have benefited from a tighter edit.

But regardless, as a contemporary treatment of landscape photography Oxbow Archive joins the ranks of other books (such as Jem Southam’s Landscape Stories) that target the quotidian and that ask us to open our eyes to what is in front of us.