Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects

IN: (Feb 01, 2021)In Depth

Portage Glacier, Alaska, August 1984


Portage Glacier, Alaska, August 1984

In 1971, a 27-year-old Joel Sternfeld left his native New York to undertake the first of many journeys that he would eventually make in America with a view to documenting his homeland. Stopping in towns rich in nomenclature such as Sandusky, Ohio or Biloxi, Mississippi, he was enthralled by the peoples and the landscapes that weaved together to form such a complex society. As he investigated the intricate relationship between the land and its inhabitants, Sternfeld sought to discover what harmony still resided in a country that was quickly becoming ‘uniform, technological and disturbing’, as he would later write. By 1977, he had developed a sophisticated use of colour that complimented the narrative strategies of his photographs.

In 1978 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for the work he had created on the streets of New York and Chicago, photographing urban and national angst with a 35mm camera. With this fellowship in hand he set out again, now able to work on a grand scale, on the nearly decade-long project that would become American Prospects.

Raised by artists, Sternfeld had always been interested in colour, and he was increasingly influenced by Josef Albers’ seminal book Interaction of Colour (1963). Like Albers, Sternfeld used solid blocks of colour to organise space within his compositions, and he investigated the relationship between the qualities and densities of different colours within the frame. Borrowing a thought from the critic Lewis Mumford, Sternfeld felt strongly that each historic period had a characteristic colour scheme, and he turned to delicate, non-primary colours to represent the pseudo-sophistication of late seventies and early eighties America.

Sternfeld utilised the expressive qualities of his colour palette in order to permit meaning to resonate. The dusky, softer shades that continued to permeate his work during this time are often melancholic. He presents America as a country of immense beauty, but one seemingly stuck at a turning point: proud of its past as a noble experiment in democracy, but fraught with various new and ominous forces. He investigated humanity’s interventions in the landscape, and the traces left by it. He looked to the areas where society had ousted nature, whether by sites of agriculture, industry, or ever creeping suburbanisation.


Lake Oswego, Oregon, June 1979

As a chronicler of societal issues within America, Sternfeld’s work continues the tradition established in the 1930s by Walker Evans and continued by Robert Frank some twenty years later. He expanded the trajectory of the medium, not only by his sparkling and intelligent use of colour but also by photographing scenes rich with narrative. He used formal invention such as positioning himself up high and at a distance from his scenes, which enabled him to stop action with an 8×10 view camera. Thus he was able to photograph grand spectacles that are dense with meaning. His intentional step back invites the viewer to do the same. The small and intricate details are only revealed after an active period of ‘looking’. The resulting images thereby facilitate a substantial expansion of the narrative possibilities of the photograph.

Sternfeld is an observer, not a participant, in the events unfolding before him. He looked at these scenes with an eye for the absurd, and the photographs are often, as a result, replete with a subtle and sometimes biting humour. His camera finds small ironies in scenes from ordinary life that might otherwise go unnoticed. Again and again the uncanny is found in human artefacts left after their owners have moved on. A seemingly abandoned white stretched limousine sits incongruous against an eerie glacial landscape and a basketball hoop sits unnoticed and unused at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac.

In Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979, Sternfeld presents a surreal narrative scene for the viewer to piece together. In this image we see a grey road flanked on either side by grass and woodland. The outline of an elephant in the middle of the road is at first glance concealed by a similarity in tone to the road it lies upon. The image, initially absurd, is revealed to be disturbing as the unsettling details of the surrounding figures, such as the sheriff’s leg emerging from his car, and the boy hosing down the distressed animal, are revealed.


Wet ‘n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980 Mclean, Virginia, December 1978

Virginia McLean, December 1978 shows a firefighter shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market whilst a fire in a house blazes in the background. Whilst it seems that the firefighter has abandoned his duties, the fire was actually a controlled training exercise and the man was on a scheduled break. The hidden narrative of the scene shows Sternfeld to be engaging with the problematic ‘truth value’ of photography. His awareness of the artifice of his own framing of the world when his shutter is pushed is made clear in this photograph. By showing curated observation to be act of authorship, Sternfeld made an argument for the recognition of photography as a literate art.

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 work has become an influential part of art history and has shaped the way that the world looks at American life and culture

(By Thea Gregory)

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