Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Joe Sterling

If there is a Chicago School of Photography, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are its founding fathers. These two artists could not have had more different personalities but their photography and teaching styles fit together like hand and glove. In addition to their groundbreaking work, Harry and Aaron's legacy is their students at the Institute of Design, the school that began as the New Bauhaus after the famous school of architecture and design in Germany that was closed by the Nazis in 1933. Callahan taught at the ID from 1946 until 1961, and Siskind from 1951 to 1971. Many of their students are distinguished artists in their own right. Teachers as well, they leave behind their own students, who in turn carry on the tradition. In the photography community of Chicago, all roads eventually lead through the ID to Callahan and Siskind.

Last week our community lost one of its direct connections to Harry and Aaron, the photographer and teacher Joesph Sterling.

Joe may not be as familiar as some of his fellow ID alums, Barbara Crane, Joseph Jachna, Richard Nickel, Art Sinsabaugh, Ray Metzker, Ken Josephson, and Yasuhiro Ishimoto to name a few. But he created a body of work in one project that stands up to the best work of his peers, even that of his teachers.

The project began as his graduate thesis in 1959. It was titled: "Age of Adolescence." Now I must say the title is a little misleading. To me it implies an authoritative, universal and timeless look into the difficult teenage years, something akin to the massive endeavor that Edward Steichen produced at the same time for the Museum of Modern Art called "The Family of Man."

Sterling's pictures are anything but authoritative, timeless and universal. Joe's style and the appearance of his subjects speak to a very specific time and place, late fifties and early sixties Chicago. In the photographs, you'll find all the trappings of teenage life of the period: cars, dances, soda shops, ("I had to go where the kids were", Joe admits in his statement), greasers, cigarettes, (lots of them), acne, tight jeans, the combing of hair in public, (mostly guys), leather jackets, horsing around, bobby socks, and sexuality, some subtle, some not.

The book is arranged chronologically so we see the drastic change in fashion that defined the span of time the photographs were made, 1959 to 1964. Slicked back hair and white tee shirts with cigarette packs tucked in the sleeves give way to mop tops and suit jackets for the guys, teased hair without any discernible style to bouffants and pageboys for the girls.

That's as far as the stereotypes go. Sterling's subjects are not straight out of central casting, the images of teenagers we think of from TV from period pieces like "Leave it to Beaver" or the insipid characters from the nostalgia driven "Happy Days". Nor are they the equally contrived, rough and ready, live fast and die young, troubled anti-heros from the movies as portrayed by James Dean, or Marlon Brando in the film "The Wild One". There is nothing about Sterling's subjects that is remotely romantic or even particularly attractive for that matter. Unlike the iconic images of Dean and Brando, no advertising agency would bother to use one of Joe's pictures to sell jeans or cologne.

Joe's work like the man himself was honest and real. Looking at the pictures, one gets the sense that he was in tune with his subjects, maybe he was one of the subjects himself as he was just barely out of his teens when he made the work. At first Joe admits, he was painfully shy, especially around girls, and would only photograph his subjects from behind. Slowly as his confidence grew, he was able to work from an intimate distance to forge a working relationship with his subjects. Outside of the occasional image of Joe getting flipped the bird, there appears to be little self-consciousness or primping and posing as kids often do, trying to make themselves look good for the camera. Unflattering as some of the pictures may be, Joe in no way attempts to denigrate or make fun of his subjects. Joe's intent was not to editorialize or make a particular statement, just to show his subjects as they were. He succeeded brilliantly.

The work gained instant success, early versions of it were published in the national photographic publication Aperture in 1961. That same year Hugh Edwards gave Joe and four of his classmates, Josephson, Jachna, Metzker and Charles Swedlund (the group later to be known as the ID 5), an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2005 for the first time, the work was published in book form. David Travis, long time Curator of Photography at the AIC wrote the introduction.

In his wonderful essay, David describes in detail the milieu of the time in America particularly as it related to teenagers. As he describes it: "a rising tide of confused identity" of the fifties led to "a tidal wave of emotional upheaval" of the late sixties. Chicago was at a crossroads as well. Richard J. Daley, father of the current mayor, was still a new mayor with big projects on his mind. The expressways he just built would tear communities apart. It would not be long before the simmering bigotry of many white Chicagoans would boil over when Martin Luther King marched for fair housing through Cicero and Marquette Park. The riots that ensued after King's assassination exacerbated the phenomenon known as "white flight", where angry, fearful people left the city in droves for the suburbs via Daley's expressways. While this was all to occur in subsequent years, the time during which Sterling made his teenage pictures was by no means an age of innocence. In the fifties Chicago was not only segregated racially but also ethnically. It was still a time when a person was just as likely to identify him or herself with the local ethnic parish (whether the person was Catholic or not) rather than with a particular neighborhood. Sometimes being in the wrong parish/neighborhood at the wrong time, could result in serious bodily harm.

Like many of his classmates, as well as both Siskind and Callahan, Joe was not from Chicago, but he understood it completely. It's purely speculation but I think that coming from the rough and tumble border town of El Paso, Texas, literally a stone's throw from that most troubled of places, the city of Juarez, Mexico, prepared him for Chicago's crosscurrents of racial unrest and ethnic divides.

There is a dark undercurrent running through Joe's pictures. People of all races are to be found in Joe's book but seldom together in the same frame. When they are, there is hardly any interaction between them. On the cover of the book is a picture of three menacing young men confronting the camera. It is as if they are saying to Joe, and by de facto to us, "what the f... are you lookin' at?" Anyone who grew up in Chicago around that time would immediately recognize these guys as characters you wouldn't want to come across in the wrong place or time.

The first picture in the book is one of Joe's most famous. It's a half foreboding, half comical two page spread of a bunch of girls socializing in appropriate beach attire, lying in the sand of the North Avenue Beach. They seem completely oblivious to the two ominous male figures in the foreground standing directly above them, visible in the picture only from their butts down. They are completely clothed, wearing their best gangster duds, pointy toed, Cuban heeled shoes, black socks and tight black trousers. What the guys are doing there, its impossible to say. Joe himself was a little imposing physically, with his big frame and slicked back hair that he continued to wear long after it was fashionable. It's not too much of a stretch to think maybe those guys were stand-ins for him.

I knew Joe later in his life when the ID 5 would turn up to Institute of Design related openings and events. They were like the Traveling Wilburys of photography, a diverse band of characters whose members were at times interchangeable. There was the reclusive Swedlund, the dignified Ishimoto, the professorial Metzker, the irreverent Josephson, and the zen-like Jachna. Then there was Joe, the regular guy. Joe was the group's most stalwart member who hardly ever missed an event. While he could converse fluently in artspeak, one always got the impression that he'd rather just shoot the breeze. He was a good storyteller who'd relish telling the same stories over and over again, probably because he liked hearing them himself, especially the stories about Harry and Aaron. It was clear that Joe treasured those memories of the ID and of his mentors most of all. In his acknowledgments, Joe touchingly thanks his two sets of parents, his biological ones in Texas, and his adopted ones, Siskind and Callahan.

Joe had a successful career in commercial photography and taught at three of the major photography schools in town, the ID, the School of the Art Institute and Columbia College whose photography program he helped establish. Throughout his life he also continued to pursue his own personal work. I've heard that Joe at times expressed disappointment that his later work never got the attention of "Age of Adolescence." "They're only interested in the teenager pictures" he'd say.

I suppose that's the price of producing a work of genius early in one's career, look at Orson Welles after he made "Citizen Kane."

Joe's work can be viewed here on the website of his representative, the Steven Dater Gallery in Chicago at 230 West Superior. Do yourself a favor and go there to see his work in person.

Short of that, pick up a copy of "Age of Adolescence", you will not be disappointed.

Joe is survived by his wife Debbie. He is also survived by the rest of the ID 5 as well as many friends and admirers including myself. He will be missed.

Now I'll let Joe have the last word. This comes at the end of his artist's statement in "Age of Adolescence".

Way to go, Joe.

After hundreds of these encounters and adventures and thousands of images, I amassed an archive from which I was able to extract, define, and develop a coherent thesis. I have gone on to numerous other projects and challenges, but this body of work remains close to my heart, and not just because of the girls.


Karen Desnick said...

What a beautiful tribute. The history of Chicago Photography is fascinating and your are uniquely qualified to document it.

James Iska said...

Thank you Karen.