“I've gone on looking for those transcendent moments and responding to them, whether it's how words can bring chills up my spine, or how the light falls on something ordinary and transforms it.”
Janet Sternberg is a writer and photographer based between Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She has written two memoirs, Phantom Limb and White Matter, and has published articles and poems in a number of journals including Aphra, the first feminist literary magazine. After graduating from The New School in New York City, Sternberg worked as an associate producer at PBS, where she produced and directed the award-winning films El Teatro Campesino and Virginia Woolf: The Moment Whole. In 1998, she decided to pursue photography. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally, and in 2016 Distanz Verlag published a book of her photographs titled Overspilling World.
In this interview, Janet Sternberg opens up about how writing has changed her life, the moment she began taking photographs, and where she looks for inspiration.
TGL: When did you start writing?
JS: When I was six years old, my parents took me to the movie Fantasia, the one in which Walt Disney experimented with putting animation and music together. I was enthralled by the live action opening as members of the orchestra gathered, excited by the abstract shapes moving to Bach's Toccata, delighted as elephants performed ballet in Dance of the Hours, scared by the evil spirits in Night on Bald Mountain. Most of all, I was ecstatic at all of it together. When I got home, I asked my mother for paper and a pencil. I had to write what I felt. Repeat: I had to. I was an only child within my mother’s large family of second-generation Russian/Polish Jews. It wasn’t a household of books and learning - neither of my parents got beyond high school, and my dad earned his living as a cab driver. But when I asked for that paper and pencil, it was given to me.
TGL: How has writing changed your life?
JS: It's hard to say that writing has changed my life, because it's always been a part of me. But I've gone on looking for those transcendent moments and responding to them, whether it's how words can bring chills up my spine, or how the light falls on something ordinary and transforms it. I've also remained deeply interested in how different art forms can live together. I tried my own experiment in Optic Nerve, a book of my poems in which I placed an image inside a poem, making it the size of a stanza. My hope was that a reader would encounter words and image as one experience. It didn't completely work; some people told me that the images were too small, and they wished they could see the photograph on the opposite page.
TGL: Twenty years ago you decided to become a photographer. How did this transition happen?
JS: In 1998, I finished a memoir that had kept me focused on the past for so long that when I looked up from the computer, I wasn't seeing what was around me. I began to go for long walks with no destination, suspending my thoughts. One day in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I spend part of each year, I stopped in front of a store window that had a display of old things - tattered advertisements, faded flowers. Painted in white script across the window was, Gracias Por Mirar (Thank you for looking). Suddenly, I wanted to take a photograph. I walked up to the town square where the only camera I could buy was a disposable, a throwaway. When I got back to the window, I noticed that the people behind me on the street were reflected in a tin disc in the window. They seemed to be passing into the circle, through it, and then disappearing at its edge. When a person appeared, I took a picture.
TGL: Was there a moment when you knew that you were on your path?
JS: It's never only one moment, but when I looked at the picture I took that day, my life did change. I saw a man hammering. He looked as though he had been in the window, but instead he had been on a roof on the other side of the street. That's when I realized the gift of the disposable camera. With no depth of field and automatic focus the world became porous - front and back, inside and outside appearing together on a single plane of the photograph, not as obvious reflections but as interpenetrating. In front of me was a whole in which everything was interpenetrating. Later, after more photographs, it seemed to me that these were images of the way our minds work.
TGL: What has photography brought you?
JS: Joy. As a writer, I revise a lot, often with a furrowed brow during many hours of intense concentration, trying again and again to get it right. When I take a photograph, it's usually when I'm walking and I see something that lights me up. I respond to it by taking a picture. That's joy.
Photography has also brought me play. I found this out one day when I was taking 4" x 6" photos, placing different ones side by side and seeing what new juxtapositions revealed. Suddenly I felt so happy doing this and at that moment I remembered paper dolls I had as a child, a corps de ballet. I didn't cut out the outfits - I'm manually clumsy and would have cut them awkwardly - but I would place them in different positions. What linked the two experiences, one as a child, another as a grown woman who had come to photography late in life? Play. Experimenting without trying to get something "right.” Freedom. Flow - all those good words that came along with photography.
TGL: How do you find inspiration or motivation to start a new project?
JS: Walking. Reading. Looking. Thinking. Sometimes I find inspiration when I'm commissioned - for example, to create an installation at the Seoul Institute of the Arts for the inauguration of a building designed to be multi-dimensional. That was a good match for me. Collaborations made it possible. I worked with a projection artist. We were inspired when we realized that the front of the building was panes of glass that were three stories high. We wanted to take two of my images and have them adhere to the entire expanse, visible from both sides of the entrance. This could be done with a special paper available only in the United States but too expensive for the budget here. So my colleagues at the Institute invented their own version and forklifts were made available. People entered the exhibition through my images. Collaboration and problem-solving as well as inspiration had to come together.
TGL: What is your method for making a decision?
JS: With writing, I revise and revise. I read aloud testing whether my writing is too convoluted, or anything is unclear, or the rhythms are off, or whether I need to cut what I call "runway writing," necessary only for take off.
With photography, I put an inkjet print on a table, then over time walk by, testing whether my eye is drawn to it. If so, I ask questions; Is it really mine or could someone else have taken it? Will it hold up beyond the first encounter? Then I put the image and possibly variations of it into iPhoto. Often, I'll bring an image up beside another one, seeing how they look side by side - a version of the child's paper dolls. For me, iPhoto is my notebook that I return to again and again. In that process, over time, a decision gets made.
The bottom line: I ask a lot of questions of the work and try to find the answers.
TGL: What are your next projects?
JS: I’m working on a book of images and text called City of Shrines, it’s about how I see Los Angeles. Not literal shrines, the title comes from what a friend said when he saw the draft: “You’ve turned the aperture into a shrine.” The writing for each image is short and simple, a little like haiku. I’m also working on another book, images and text again, about the idea of limbus, a word that fascinates me. It's derived from Latin, where it meant border. In the sixteenth century, Paracelsus used it for a hem in the universe between body and spirit. In the twenty first century it is used in ophthalmology; it's the fuzzy ring at the outer edge of the eyeball where it meets the white of the eye. That limbus is where stem cells were discovered which cross their own border to replenish lost cells of the cornea. I explored the word first in my show of the same name at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, where I made a limbus around each image. I find these various usages of limbus to be very rich, and I want to go on exploring them.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
JS: I'd like to meet writer Italo Calvino for breakfast at Caffe Al Bicerin in Turin. Bicerin is a hot drink made of espresso, drinking chocolate and whole milk served layered in a small rounded glass. I read that Calvino had one every morning at this cafe. When I had a show this past April in near Milan, I took a train to Turin to pay homage to him and to all the other writers who lived there, among them Natalia Ginzburg and Primo Levi. We would approach the cafe from different directions, greeting on the cobblestones and going inside to have our favorite drink. I imagine him as a deeply humane companion - at least that's how he seems in books like Mr. Palomar, which has to be every photographer's bible. If he's not, - and so often people are different from their work - that's okay.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JS: Keep questioning. Don't talk about what you're working on until it's finished; chatting about it can stop you cold. Don't compare yourself with other people - how they're doing, how you're doing. One advantage in coming to photography - or any other art form - late in life as I did, is that other people don't weigh on you so heavily. Right from the beginning of your practice, or anytime at all, get lighter. Get a dog, or better yet, two dogs. For laughter, connection, comfort.