This is the first show curator Phillip Prodger has organized for the Peabody Essex since he became the museum's first full-time photography curator in May 2008. The museum has long been known for its art and artifacts of New England, Native American life, and the cultures seagoing Salem touched via the China trade. But it has been redefining itself over the past decade as a place that respects its past while taking on a broader — and hipper — scope. The appeal of Sternbach's photos for the institution is clear. They reference antique methods and ethnographic documentary photos in the museum's collection. They strut at the intersection between maritime and cool.
Sternbach's subjects are young and old, black, white, and Asian, laid-back lazy crazy boys of endless summer as well as — from one shot — bikini-clad sisters in a print so dark they seem to emerge from a sultry night. The groovy old dude with the dog in Allan + Honey is a classic surfing character, Allan "Bandito" Weisbecker, who became known because of his 2000 memoir In Search of Captain Zero. But most of these folks are unknowns.
Three little girls haul their dad's giant board across the beach rocks. A woman, standing in the surf, cradles a baby in her arms. A pregnant lady drags her board across the beach. This is the tribe of surfing. They pose with their scratched and scarred boards, decorated with lacy patterns, flower designs, American flags, as if they were totems or shields. (If you're of a Freudian frame of mind, all these people standing and hugging their boards has amusing implications.) Sternbach's project seems like some back-to-the-future Edward Curtis quest to document a vanishing aboriginal people.
For all that, Sternbach is only able to attain the richness of a photo like Hawaiian Ed a few times in the 47 shots here. When they don't have it, they feel like a clothing catalogue. That's not to say that art photography is by nature better than fashion photography — but to point to a hollowness that pervades so-so examples of both.
A primal schism in photography took place in the 1920s when Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen disagreed about commercial art. Steiglitz, who came from money, championed the purity of art for art's sake. Steichen, who didn't come from money, shot portraits and fashion photos for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and advertising. Though gatekeepers have tried to draw a bright line between art photography and fashion shots, the division has always been blurry, with photographers like Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Nan Goldin, Mary Ellen Mark, and Ryan McGinley working both sides of the fence. The sensuous beauty, drama, and strangeness of great fashion photography by the likes of Irving Penn, William Klein, Cecil Beaton, and Horst P. Horst holds its own against art photography. At this point, trying to untangle the two is useless as fashion styles have seeped into art photography's roots — the blank pout on the faces in so many art photos these days comes straight from fashion models.
Ultimately quality is not determined by the category where you find something, but an alchemy of style and soul. And soul is what many of Sternbach's photos lack. In a large group, the shots feel formulaic, the beautiful people's looks (either wistful or stern) a mask. The photos are stylish and cool, but they struggle to be something more.