A Coin and Its Other Side: Janet Sternburg Photographs of an Interpenetrating World

Jack Miles admires the rich simultaneity Janet Sternburg has captured in the photographs collected in “Overspilling World.”

By Jack MilesDecember 20, 2016

A Coin and Its Other Side: Janet Sternburg Photographs of an Interpenetrating World

Janet Sternburg: Overspilling World by Janet Sternburg. Distanz. 144 pages.

IMAGINE YOURSELF in an art museum, viewing a large, turbulent seascape so precious that it is displayed under glass. Unfortunately, the glass — reflecting a spot of glare from a light source somewhere in the room — is interfering with your focus on the painting. You take a step to the right to escape the glare but then are startled to catch your own reflection in the glass. Worse, as that happens, your gaze necessarily and instantaneously takes in, behind you, the rest of the gallery, including several paintings on the far wall as well as a large nude sculpture at the center of the room. For an arresting second, you see the sculpture as simply a large nude woman. Then you notice, reflected in the glass, a girl in horn-rimmed glasses standing behind you and looking intently at the same seascape you are trying to view. But wait: Is she really looking at it or, instead, looking curiously at you? And who is that man in uniform coming toward the two of you? Visually and perhaps emotionally, the moment begins to become highly charged.

Now imagine that someone could turn this entire ensemble of objects and human beings — you yourself, the heaving sea, the several paintings on the far side of the gallery, the heroic nude in the middle, the girl in the horn-rimmed glasses, and the museum guard — into a single large color photograph. Imagine that this image could capture them just as you saw them, which is to say as all reflected on the same pane of glass with the seascape showing through behind them. Imagine that the distance, the organizing perspective, that you spontaneously provided to sort them all out and distribute them in space were collapsed in this image and that all the mentioned elements were now simultaneously present in a single, layered, but two-dimensional visual plane. Now sense the interactive possibilities among them: the voluptuous torso of the nude versus the officer’s uniform; the girl and you standing so close together, with the swirling sea around you; the girl’s intent gaze, through her horn-rimmed glasses, and the paintings calling from the far wall; in an upper corner, the relocated glare, irradiating all like a weird sunburst.

Such a photograph would be highly suggestive, and yet the experience that I describe is an everyday experience. Every time you drive a car, you are seeing one world out your front windshield and, within it, another world in your rearview mirror. Do you wear glasses? Have you ever seen, blended with what you intended to see, a smudge on one of your lenses? As you read these sentences, consider the layered world of objects and perspectives that confronts you and the varied associations you have to each element in view. To maintain sanity and navigate through your world, you focus successively now on this element and now on that, but at certain moments of visual privilege or psychological collapse their simultaneity can crowd in on you and overwhelm you. Such is the surreal moment that Janet Sternburg captures in the remarkable photographs that have made her growing reputation.

“When people look at my work,” she writes, “they sometimes ask whether the images were made by superimpositions or double exposures, or with some kind of digital manipulation. And do I use a technically advanced camera? The answer is ‘No.’” I’m sure people do ask Sternburg that question, for I asked it myself when I first saw and was so intensely drawn to her work that I bought a large print, entitled Stream, that happens to be prominently included in this volume. Her technique, we learn here, derives from an epiphanic moment in San Miguel de Allende when she looked through the plate glass storefront of a kind of curio shop. For the first time, she took full consciousness of all that her eye was actually seeing. There was, of course, what was actually on display, but there was, in addition, what was elusively reflected in the glass separating her from the display. Not much into photography at the time, she had no camera with her, so she quickly bought a disposable tourist camera, came back, and took a photograph, shooting through the glass into the display. When printed, that 1998 photograph had an uncanny, collage-like effect, delivering more than she had expected, and she was on her way. A much more recent photograph taken with the same sort of camera, looking into that same shop (which is still in business) constitutes the frontispiece to this volume; I read it as a faceless, or eerily face-replaced, self-portrait.

Glass and reflection were crucial to that epiphany, and over the ensuing years Sternburg has learned how to scout out, often in Mexico, “glassy,” reflective, or refractive street scenes comparably rich in potential for her image-making. Two-thirds of this book consist of full-page color reproductions of some of her photographs, an album of nearly one hundred in all. If this album were an anthology of poems, it would be called “New and Selected,” for a good many of the photographs assembled here have been shown elsewhere. Yet those other showings included various photos not collected here. And clearly, there are many more where all these came from.

The eminent and erudite art historian Alexandra von Stosch provides here a searching 11-page essay that combines evocative appreciations of a number of the anthologized photos with philosophical reflections. The appreciations work, in their way, rather like the imaginary photograph with which I began, and I enjoyed comparing her readings of the visual elements in each with my own. But it’s clear that for a philosophically trained mind like von Stosch’s, these photos excite philosophical associations even more than they do visual ones. The names fairly tumble forth: Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, but then Thomas More, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Edmund Husserl. Besides the thinkers, there are the artists and the photographers: Guercino, Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz, Breton, and others. It’s all quite dazzling, but when I read a line like “Here, Sternburg would probably see eye to eye with László Moholy-Nagy,” I think, “Well, maybe, but maybe not.” The highly enriched intellectual context that von Stosch provides for Sternburg’s work seems rather the context in which von Stosch receives the work than the context in which Sternburg has produced it. Rather than a commentary, it is an homage, a little show of its own.

“Ambiguity in Motion,” as von Stosch entitles her essay, is especially illuminating for its discussion of the philosophical psychologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Overspilling World, the title of the volume, is a phrase borrowed from one of his essays. But Sternburg’s own 13-page essay, “There for the Seeing,” is a more direct and finally more satisfying account of the genesis of these photographs. The autobiographical elements she includes are engaging and persuasive, while her sense of critical distance and the intellectual debts she acknowledges — often with exceptionally apposite quotes — are impressive. Let me offer just one glimpse. If you have ever sat for a portrait photograph, you will recall reviewing the proofs, rejecting many, narrowing to a few, and finally choosing one. Sternburg goes through this stage, too, with each of her works, although the interestingly explained criteria that go into her selection (and rejection) process are not those that you or I would likely employ in choosing a portrait.

The opening essay, presented typographically as a kind of prose poem, is by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders. I was intrigued to learn in the credits at the back of this volume that “[t]he starting point for his pursuit of an independent body of photographic work was the series Written in the West, which came into being during preparations for [the film] Paris, Texas as Wenders crisscrossed the American West.” Wenders has placed as epigraph to his essay a quote from St. Paul: “For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Wenders is drawn above all to the way that a photograph can show the photographer and her subject simultaneously — “a coin and its other side.” There is something weird, something uncanny, about either films or photographs that do this, and, of course, few films or photographs ever really do. Paris, Texas, however, is a film that certainly does. By the time I saw it, I had spent many long hours driving across American desert landscapes, but the haunting desert scenes which open that film showed me something that, in visual and psychological effect, I had never seen before. Only Wenders’s eye had seen it, so I was, for long moments, alienated but riveted in place by seeing the American desert through a German stranger’s eye.

As epigraph to the photo gallery that fills the long middle of this book, Sternburg places words of her own: “My work is about revealing an interpenetrating world. To that end, I use no manipulation whatsoever. I work with single-use and iPhone cameras because their limitations give me what I want, images that are close to the way our minds work.” Our everyday world, once its interpenetration has been captured in this way, becomes a strange, mysterious world. Wenders quotes Paul’s famous words with reason. And this body of work certainly does portray the photographer as much as it portrays her subjects. Close to the way our minds work, she writes, and I think to myself, Our minds? Really? Ours, yes, in the quotidian way I indicated in opening this review. But also, in an utterly idiosyncratic way, only hers. No manipulation whatsoever? Granted, done with no elaborate photographic equipment, but done, for all that, by way of an artful, even arty, and highly pondered mise-en-scène. In “There for the Seeing,” Sternburg describes herself skulking around on the back streets of San Miguel de Allende, peering through the windows of parked or abandoned cars, looking for one with just the right assortment of suggestive objects inside, against the right background outside, with perhaps just the right degree of suggestive, textured decay. “Amble as preamble,” she calls her wanderings.

These objets, then, are not trouvés by sheer chance. She assembles what she needs, even if she must wait for it to show up, or must revisit the same spot repeatedly until it has “posed” itself to the desired effect. The technical and practical limitations she has embraced give her, yes, what she wants, but what she wants is compellingly strange. Strange in the way that Stream was strange when I saw it and asked to buy it. Strange in the way that the opening moments of Paris, Texas are strange. Overspilling World, for analogous reasons, may be a book that will draw you in with its strangeness to the point that you’ll want to buy it. I confess that I have spent more time with it than this review begins to reveal.


Jack Miles is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions and professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Jack Miles, an ex-Jesuit, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995), editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.


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