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Janet Sternburg Has Been Walking… And What She Saw Will Amaze You!

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Although the title of this article is pure clickbait, it is nonetheless true. During the pandemic, poet-author-photographer Janet Sternburg found herself taking walks around her neighborhood of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, camera in hand. The resulting book of images, I’ve Been Walking (Distanz), is not so much a chronicle of the plague year, as it is an artistic inquiry of the way what we see continues to nourish us.

Sternburg who had recently recovered from a foot injury, was reappreciating her ability to ambulate at the same time as the world had withdrawn. The world she was emerging into was deserted and desolate yet, paradoxically, Sternburg saw riches – complex visual fields which caught her eye and were captured in her lens.

Sternburg’s photographic practice is such that she makes no alterations either in camera or by manipulating the image. Her work lives in the Cartier-Bresson Decisive Moment. She sees, she clicks, the work reveals itself.

Yet this description is far too simplistic to describe Sternburg’s photographs. Very often her images challenge the eyes and the brain. One must look more than once to determine what it is one is looking at. They are works of trompe l’oeuil – causing the eye to see patterns in a chain link fence or a horizon in the edge of wall.

In some ways, Sternburg’s practice harkens back to Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades. Much of the evolution of Contemporary Art is about forcing the viewer to see more in the everyday – to make art of what we dismiss as detritus. And so Sternburg sees a traffic light – lines it up with a building in the background, and a cloud-filled horizon, and makes of it a painting-like study of shapes – squares and circles and lines on a Watteau-like sky – and what is a momentary stop at a street corner becomes a meditation on our time of confinement. Similarly, a water fountain in a park becomes a golden obelisk, a shot from the passenger seat of a car gives us, as Sternburg writes in the text next to her images, “A place where truck and basket becomes cosmos.”

The doors of the Bradbury building become a symbol of the closed world and yet there is hidden inside a welcoming sign that in this world of contradictions signifies acceptance. It is Sternburg’s gift to seize these contradictions and make of them Art.

There is a progression in the images of the book as the world itself opens up. We go from haze to brightness. There are glimpses of other people: the feet of a skateboarder peeking, a homeless person, a young man driving a car.

In the very act of creation, Sternburg presents us with reasons for optimism, for hope. We are given a new chance, a chance to see the world anew.

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