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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review kissing a stranger Photographs by Joni Sternbach Reviewed by Brian Arnold "In some ways it seems easy to me to mock the 1970s, with so many trends that haven’t aged well — disco, Atari game systems and the Commodore 64, birthday parties at the roller rink, Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and Charlie’s Angels. In other ways, however, in the wake of Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the 1970s were revolutionary. Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published in 1970, paving the way for a whole new approach to feminism and equal rights for women, and the 1972 publication of the Joy of Sex completely changed the sexual revolution, bringing it to middle-class American bedrooms..."

The Moon Is Behind Us. By Joni Sternbach
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZJ855
kissing a stranger
Photographs by Joni Sternbach

Dürer Editions, Ireland/France, 2021. 96 pp., 9¼x11¼".

In some ways it seems easy to me to mock the 1970s, with so many trends that haven’t aged well — disco, Atari game systems and the Commodore 64, birthday parties at the roller rink, Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and Charlie’s Angels. In other ways, however, in the wake of Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the 1970s were revolutionary. Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published in 1970, paving the way for a whole new approach to feminism and equal rights for women, and the 1972 publication of the Joy of Sex completely changed the sexual revolution, bringing it to middle-class American bedrooms. There were ground-breaking intellectual works developed by writers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and incredible cinema like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. And of course, it was also a golden age for photography, with innovative academic programs emerging at institutions like the Visual Studies Workshop, as well as groundbreaking work by John Szarkowsi and Nathan Lyons helping to pioneer new collections and exhibitions devoted to the medium. All these things also provide the perfect backdrop for understanding the wonderful new book by photographer Joni Sternbach, kissing a stranger.

Well-known for her beautifully produced wet-plate photographs of surfing communities, kissing a stranger is best understood as a portrait of the artist as a young woman. The photographs were all made in the 1970s and 1980s, while Sternbach was attending art school in the tough streets of New York and battling her own upbringing amidst middle-class family disfunction. Stylistically speaking, the pictures in kissing a stranger are an incredible surprise. Nothing like the pictures Sternbach makes today, they are all produced in a very traditional manner, black-and-white and with a handheld camera, very much in a decisive moment tradition, reacting to life as she sees it happening.


The opening photograph perfectly sets the stage for the entire narrative to follow. It shows a woman dancing, in mid-twirl. She appears like a whirling dervish or a dancer from Alexey Brodovitch’s Ballet. The twirling figure feels transcendent, like she is using her body and movement to escape the confines of this reality. In the following pages we are witness to one-night-stands, bitter marriages, and a tough urban environment. We are also witness to a young woman armed with a camera trying to break free of a life that feels foreign, all as an act of self-declaration and self-determination.

With multiple viewings of the book, I’ve broken Sternbach’s sequencing into four distinct sections. The opening photographs are all portraits of young women — some looking sensual, empowered and self-possessed, while others more isolated and disheveled. There is an interesting transition after this first sequence of pictures — an empty landscape and a young man sipping coffee in his underwear — before we get to the second sequence, a series of portraits of an older woman (presumedly the artist’s mother). These portraits portray a complex family life, pronounced with harsh captions like “Happy lie,” “Divorce,” and “People’s parties.” The combined effect of these opening sequences of photographs is very compelling, suggesting a conflict for these young women — caught between their own desires, complex family histories, and a need for self-definition.


Again, after a brief transition in which we see a ballerina holding a bundle of balloons and a woman looking defeated, her head planted submissively in her lover’s lap, Sternbach starts the next section of pictures, this time focusing on (her) lovers. With pictures depicting naked couples lying together in bed, nude torsos, and even an interesting picture that feels like a profound role reversal, Sternbach looking down on her lover splayed on the bed, his underwear barely concealing his erection (in this picture, she has all the power, not how I preconceive romantic love in the 1970s).

The final section of photographs is made out on the streets of New York, where Sternbach clearly is asking questions about love, relationships, and being an independent woman. Interspersed with pictures of couples — both young and old, some kissing and delighting in their love, others fighting or looking bored and tired — she also shows women assuming a variety of roles. We see women alone and isolated, prepping for their wedding day, and tending to their children. And among these is one picture that feels especially poignant, a young woman with her hands cradling her belly, as if holding her empty womb (I’m reminded of the beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson, “My Life had Stood, a Loaded Gun”). Together, these photographs express an incredible desire for freedom — a profound need to escape from expectations of gender normativity, to be an independent woman in control of her desire, relationships, and identity.

The final picture in the book offers a tremendous affirmation and feeling of joy, a relief after so many pictures that depict struggle and conflict. It shows a young woman smiling and pretending to hold a camera, releasing the shutter to take her picture. She exudes a sense of delight and playfulness, but also solidifies the narrative — that Sternbach used her work as an artist and photographer to escape from the confines of a life surrounded by unhappy marriages, restrictive cultural expectations, and as a way to take control of her life and own her sense of self.


It is difficult for me not to compare kissing a stranger with the recent publication by Deanna Templeton, What She Said (my review for this book is here). By appearances these books seem quite different — Templeton's bubblegum pink book is so much more extraverted than then this soft-spoken, more lyrical work by Sternbach — but on a deeper level the books have striking similarities; both women delve unflinchingly into their pasts to better understand who and what they are today. Templeton and Sternbach both use their work as artists to better grabble with and understand an essential moment in their development, while at the same time acknowledging photography as an essential tool for self-definition and the creation of personal identity. Such issues are at the forefront of our cultural discourse today, with so many books now probing the remarkable complexities of culture, marginality, and self. I am very interested in seeing more books like these new publications by Sternbach and Templeton, narratives in which women honestly depict their struggles and triumphs of self within such rigidly defined attitudes, expectations, and roles.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.