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.