iDubai

Published by Steidl, 2010

Reviewed by Daniel W. Coburn

Issue 19

The city that has been described as a potential disaster by some and a modern utopia by others, has inspired many photographers to return from Dubai with exactly what you would expect: images of a middle-eastern horizon littered with the world's most outlandish skyscrapers and photographs of drastically altered landscapes that have become the trademark for human negligence and excess. While I understand the necessity and importance of such images, I am pleased to say that this isn’t what you’ll find in Joel Sternfeld’s latest monograph iDubai.

Sternfeld rarely removes his camera from the confines of Dubai’s massive malls and shopping complexes. He abandoned the large format camera for a much smaller and trendy piece of technology that enabled him to navigate stealthily through a labyrinth of escalators, corridors, and storefronts. He makes these images using the tiny camera on his iPhone, and in doing so, becomes well versed in a type of mall-rat vernacular that seems appropriate for describing this unique social landscape. When taken out of context, some of the images are surprisingly familiar, depicting scenes that could have realistically taken place at a shopping mall in Kansas. Many of them document average consumers completing their transactions at a checkout counter or small groups of adolescents loitering in a food court. Upon closer examination, many of Sternfeld’s photographs of Dubai document a fringe of the globalized world where pop-culture, fueled by the driving forces of capitalism, collides with the traditions of Islam. One photo depicts a storefront with a handwritten sign reading "Prayer time - back in 10 minutes."

Jonathan Crary wrote an accompanying essay for the book and suggests that the indoor mall world of Dubai is a non-place. “It is where nothing will ever occur that could become part of a collective or individual memory and thus become a form of experience that could be preserved, communicated and shared.” This is quite a bold prediction and one that I don't necessarily agree with. However, it is clear that Sternfeld is documenting the fissure that separates the intimate lives of these people from the space that they temporarily occupy. It is a disconnect born of an environment that exists only for the purpose of solicitation and commerce.

This hard-bound coffee table book is relatively small, measuring just a little over 9x5 inches. The cover is wrapped in a linen fabric, inlaid with flashy glitter, and the title is stamped in metallic gold ink. The treatment seems appropriate for the subject matter. However, the format of the book was somewhat frustrating for me, containing 96 pages that serve as host to over 220 images. Each page features three photographs reproduced at about the size they would appear on the display of your cell phone. For some, this type of presentation might effectively emulate the constant stream of banal, electronic media one encounters on a daily basis. I don’t feel that this concept translated well to book form. Instead, I can’t help but get the feeling that I am looking at Sternfeld’s contact sheets, and that some of the images could have been completely omitted to the benefit of the project.

Despite my grievances regarding the presentation of the work, I think iDubai would make a valuable and unique contribution to your library. The subjects and environments explored in this work are approached with both empathy and intelligent criticism in a way that could only be accomplished by Joel Sternfeld.

Daniel W. Coburn is a photographer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
To view Daniel's photography, please visit his website.

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