For anyone who follows the world of photography, it is indisputable that Joel Sternfeld is a living master. Sternfeld is probably best known for his 1987 book “American Prospects,” a seminal work of photography documenting the United States. It has been compared to the work of other masterworks describing the American tradition, including Walker Evans’s “American Photographs” and Robert Frank’s “The Americans.”
Since that first book, Sternfeld has been steadily working, notably turning to issues of climate change and the environment. (He has two earlier books on the subject: “Oxbow Archive” and “When It Changed,” both from 2008.) Sternfeld’s newest book, “Our Loss” (Steidl, 2019), is a deeply personal meditation on the consequences of climate change told through the tragic story of David Buckel, a former attorney who had focused on social justice and LGBT rights but left his career to work on a community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Distressed by the increasing pollution of Earth, Buckel took his life in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, hoping that his act would spur people to take action against the deterioration of the planet. In an email to the New York Times (printed in the beginning of Sternfeld’s book), Buckel wrote: “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. ... Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Sternfeld happened to be in the park with his son on the day of Buckel’s death. He was deeply affected. Ever since he was very young, Sternfeld told In Sight:
“My entire life has been animated by the seasons and by an exaltation of their role as a manifestation of all the forces of the universe. As a child I read all of the nature writers: Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs and later on Edwin Way Teale, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland and so many others. It’s difficult to convey how much I watched and thrilled to every nuanced moment of seasonal advance and retreat. And now the seasons are threatened, as is so much more. David Buckel sacrificed his life in an effort to save the earth as place of human habitation. I dearly wish he might have found another means but I believe I understand his anguish and his alarm. People are going to be washed away. Every day nations ask young people to sacrifice their young lives for the sake of perceived nationhood. I believe that David Buckel sacrificed his life for something greater than nationhood or national interest, he sacrificed his life for all mankind.”
With “Our Loss,” Sternfeld honors the memory of David Buckel, hoping that “it carries forward his warning of the consequences of burning fossil fuels by illuminating the beauties of the seasons, the daily transverse of light and the simple and timeless human pleasures that may be had in a park.”
The book contains photos that Sternfeld took of the site of Buckel’s death. He went to the park the day after Buckel died and began documenting the spot, returning over and over, recording the changing seasons and continuation of life in the park as nature reclaimed the spot. Sternfeld employs a kind of topographic approach with the photographs. Topographic approaches can sometimes be so wrapped up in form, repetition and consistency that it is bereft of emotion. But that’s not the case here. There is a weight hovering over all of the elements in the photos that injects them with a deep sense of humanity. There is a sense of tenderness and humility that touches on what it means to be living as a human being on this planet, right now.
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