The impossible city

Joel Sternfeld is a contemporary of the New Topographic Photographers and is best known for his seminal book American Prospects. He is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Prix de Rome and the Citibank Photography prize, in association with the Photographers' Gallery. He lives in New York.

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Walking the high line

Looking East on 30th Street on a Monday morning in May, 2000.

In his series of photographs of an abandoned elevated railway in New York, Joel Sternfeld has exposed a strip of land running through the heart of one of the world's densest cities which has somehow escaped the clutches of the real-estate developers for the last 25 years. Raised 30 feet in the air, cutting through converted factories and dividing city blocks, the "High Line" runs from Manhattan's West Village up to 34th Street. It was built in the 1930s to accommodate the traffic from ships docking at the piers on the Hudson River. The line saw its last train in 1980 and has since languished in a state of sublime oblivion.

Sternfeld was part of a group of local residents who formed an advocacy group called Friends of the High Line who campaigned for the preservation and re-use of the line. They succeeded and work has now started on creating an innovative public space of urban parkland designed by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Like much of Sternfeld's seminal work this landscape series is both celebration and memorial. It shows a walk along the rail tracks once known as the lifeline of New York where the urban inner city has been reclaimed by nature. An elegy to the city's past, the pictures frequently foreground wilderness encroaching on the industrial infrastructure showing the city's conflict between nature's temporal processes and man's monumental engineering.

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