Joel Sternfeld




Joel Sternfeld (born 1944) is a photographer whose work sits within the American documentary tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank. He is celebrated for his pioneering colour photographs that explore societal issues, and are often characterised by subtle irony and humour. His series American Prospects is regarded as one of the most influential bodies of photographic work from the late twentieth century.

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Photographic Career

Born in 1944 in New York City, Joel Sternfeld earned a BA in Art from Dartmouth College in 1965. Sternfeld began taking photographs in 1970 having studied the colour theory of artists Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. Early work included street photography on small and medium format cameras. In 1978 Sternfeld followed in the footsteps of Robert Frank and embarked on a road-trip which traversed the United States. Taking an 8 x 10 inch camera with him, Sternfeld photographed the communities, culture, landscapes and quotidian life he encountered along the way.

American Prospects is seen as a continuation of the American documentary tradition established in the 1930s by Walker Evans and continued by Robert Frank twenty years later. Sternfeld expanded the trajectory of the medium by photographing scenes rich in implied narrative, which were also distinct in their colour and composition. Laced with a touch of irony, his photographs from the project explore American identity in a thought provoking yet humorous manner. His masterful use of colour heightens the tensions in these comic depictions of everyday life in America. First exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and then published in book form in 1987, American Prospects is regarded as one of the most influential bodies of photographic work from this period.

Sternfeld’s later work has continued to experiment with colour and put it to use in documenting everyday events and the people he encounters. This Site: Landscapes in Memoriam (1996), focused on significant sites in American history where tragedy had occurred. Stranger Passing, made in 2001, sees a return to similar ideas explored in American Prospects. Sternfeld created portraits of the people he encountered on his travels. The project focused on narrating the story of the subject through their physical appearance and surroundings. Further projects have seen Sternfeld extend his scope beyond America to photograph the tensions created by violent protests at the G20 summit in Geneva in 2001 and the history of Campagna Romagna in Italy. More recently Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (2006) looks at the sites of past and present idealised communities in America.

Exhibitions and Awards

Sternfeld’s work has been the subject of multiple exhibitions in museums and galleries worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum Folkwang Essen, the Albertina Museum of Vienna and C/O Berlin. He has received numerous awards including two Guggenheim fellowships, a Prix de Rome and the Citibank Photography Award. He holds the Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History at Sarah Lawrence College.


Notes, News, Press and Exhibitions

Joel Sternfeld The High Line


Joel Sternfeld: Walking the High Line


Joel Sternfeld: Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society

Dog in the road in Santa Monica by Joel Sternfeld


British Journal of Photography: Joel Sternfeld on his new work


i-D: photographing the ruins and riches of 80s america


NY Times: Old Photographs That Capture America at a Crossroads


Huck Magazine: Americana in focus: The Subtle genius of Joel Sternfeld. The land of the free