Photographs of burnt out car shells made in detail like insurance claims appear approximately one-third of the way into Colin Stearns’ all that cannot be said. Everything prior—brick walls, a wedding dress and tux on window display, wrought iron fences, flowers left as memorial tied to telephone poles, missing persons signs—read like a long prologue to the charred remains.
Thirty-four years prior to that in 1984, Joachim Brohm photographed a burning car for his series, Ohio. Whereas Brohm’s royal blue car is engulfed in blazing orange surrounded by residential brick buildings and tall green fauna, Stearn’s car is in stark and contrasty black and white set against a dirty concrete and brick landscape as though color, car paint, and opportunity were all burnt away and forced onto side streets and alleys. Brohm’s and Stearns’ cars are separated by three decades and over 500 miles but the story feels like two adjoined volumes—as though the same car made its way aflame from Ohio to New York City where fate was met by indifference, its occupant’s whereabouts unknown and advertised on those missing persons signs. Everything after Stearns’ cars, builds like a search continued where Brohm left off.
all that cannot be said, defines New York City by looking at moldering artifacts of life. Single photographs do not stand out. That’s not to say single photographs are not good—a lily perched atop a fence hauntingly radiates white against the dark black background. Brick walls dead end, street corners collect debris, and graffiti reads, “Wait for me.” But more thoughtful than any individual frame is the edit. The photographs inspect the city in a search for answers, repeat a pattern and collect like evidence boxes on a shelf. Some images linger too long on abstract or out of focus moodiness and break the routine of looking at something specific in favor of feeling a certain way for perhaps one more unexpected connection. But even those images promote the feeling throughout the rest of the book of looking and loss. Stearns’ more straight photographs keep that feeling grounded. One image of a car’s windshield detached and on the ground, its thick black frame wrapping shattered glass, does well to be understood as a not so subtle metaphor as a framing device. Jesus appears too—a cross propped against a parking lot wall and in another image, his name scrawled in white paint. Mother Mary hangs from a rearview mirror unable to bring much life. A map on a park bench and street lights that do not project enough light seem inadequate to do their job but articulate an uneasy searching.
Colin Stearns approaches the city without preconceived notions or a story already formed that needs photographs but by looking and responding with camera. It’s not even about New York City but like Brohm’s Ohio, it’s a response to a place. all that cannot be said is paced by the recurrence of cars in states of decay, missing persons signs as a last vestige, and flower memorials accepting all that cannot be said because no one knows what happened and no one knows where to be found. It’s a continued searching, picking up a cold case. This is the act of quiet and hopeful inspection.