Joel Sternfeld’s ‘American Prospects’

Born in 1944 in New York City, Joel Sternfeld went on to receive a BA in Art from Dartmouth College in 1965. Sternfeld began taking colour photographs in 1970 and has become a leading figure in the history of colour photography, championing it as a respected artistic medium. His best known work is the series American Prospects.

Sternfeld spent several years traversing the United States with his 8 x 10 inch camera, in order to capture the essential character of the country. 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. 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 with implied narrative, which were also distinct in their colour and composition. The images in the series also demonstrate Sternfeld’s early experiments with colour and conceptual strategies that he would develop later on into complete bodies of work.

Sternfeld’s work is characterised by its attention to societal issues, delicately balanced by subtle irony and humour. McLean, Virginia, December 1978 is an example of this; here we see a fire fighter shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market whilst a house on fire blazes in the background. Despite appearances, the scene that Sternfeld had captured was a controlled training exercise, and a chief who was able to leave his post when the house was allowed to burn to the ground. The hidden story of this photograph shows Sternfeld to be engaging with the problematic ‘truth value’ of photography.

Giles Huxley-Parlour, director of Beetles+Huxley, has stated: “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. His pioneering early colour photographs present a country of immense beauty and opportunity, but one seemingly stuck at a turning point: proud of its past as a noble experiment in democracy, but fraught with various new and disturbing forces. His work resonates strongly today at a time of such upheaval in American politics and society.”

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