In 2000, Joel Sternfeld embarked on a project to photograph the disused space of the New York High Line: a railway track used in the mid-twentieth century to ease the transportation of manufactured goods without disrupting street-level traffic. Falling into decline with the introduction of a new interstate highway system, the High Line lay dormant for several years, succumbing to the forces of nature. Forlorn and abandoned, it stood in memorial to past ideas of the future.
Now fully documented in Sternfeld’s book, Walking the High Line (2002), the series captures the eerie beauty of this abandoned space, and symbolises a tension between the old and the new, the industrial and the natural, the bucolic and the urban. Far from the ‘soul’ of the city, the tracks lie dormant, consumed equally by plant life and abandoned industrial paraphernalia. Sternfeld’s use of large-format photography creates considered, poetic images of the site, enabling him to render the ruinous romantic.
Sternfeld’s photographs take on particular symbolic significance given the importance of railway structures to art-historical thought. Historically, trains have captured the Avant Garde imagination – their utopic potential, qualities of speed, and stream-lining of industry were of seminal importance to the Futurist and the Vorticist groups. Consider Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed (1913), or Ivo Pannaggi’s Speeding Train (1922): works which use the locus of machinery to comment on modernity, power, and progeny.
Of particular relevance is Christopher Nevinson’s The Soul of the Soulless City (New York – an Abstraction) (1920) – a major Vorticist work. Depicting a set of train tracks winding into the middle distance, crowded by angular sky scrapers, Nevinson’s painting almost exactly parallels the composition of Sternfeld’s photographs. However, where the tracks in Nevinson’s painting represent a rising faith in technology – a metaphor for longevity and the teleology of industry – in Sternfeld’s images the metaphor is transformed. The photographer’s use of vanishing points become an ironic metaphor for failing industry – once a visual argument for strength and surety, Sternfeld’s images are rendered analeptic, symbolic of a stasis and unease.
Since Sternfeld’s project at the turn of the century, these railway tracks have been subject to intense civic and community scrutiny as to their purpose and economic potential. While today, the High Line has been transformed into a celebrated and much-used 1.45-mile-long park, Sternfeld’s photographs provide insight into a specific moment of this unique historical monument’s narrative. In a city as spatially fraught as New York, it is of particular interest to see structures that slipped through the net of socio-industrial planning, if only for a short while