All photographs © Joel Sternfeld
Originally beginning as a traditional street photographer, Joel Sternfeld set out to switch things up. Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans 40 years earlier, Sternfeld embarked on an eight-year trip around the country with an 8×10 view camera and color film – at a time where acceptance for color photography as an art form was at its infancy.
After being given a Guggenheim Fellowship for his urban work, Sternfeld wrote in his Guggenheim report that he had the desire “of someone who grew up with a classical regional America and the order it seemed to contain, to find beauty and harmony in an increasingly uniform, technological, and disturbing America.”
Sternfeld would shoot five or six negatives each day as he drove with his Volkswagen camper, often not seeing the negatives for six months.
His work combines the wit of a traditional street photographer with the patience and skill of a landscape photographer, and he found a prospering world on the surface underlied by a troubled psyche.
Working to explore the complex idea of the collective American identity, Sternfeld focused on the ordinary. His work bounced the line between dark and light – the optimistic yet the troubled – the divide between the utopic and dystopic attributes of American society.
The project would culminate in the landmark 1987 book, American Prospects, which has recently been re-released by Steidl.
Curator Keven Moore explained that Sternfeld’s work was the “synthetic culmination of so many photographic styles of the 1970s, incorporating the humor and social perspicacity of street photography with the detached restraint of New Topographics photographs and the pronounced formalism of works by so many late-decade colorists.”
“Although there’s humor in American Prospects, it was for me a deeply serious and political enterprise.” – Joel Sternfeld
His photographs feel the calm detachment of the 8×10 camera and the spirit of traditional landscape photography, yet as you peruse the details you quickly notice something is off. And the more and more you look, the more surreal and troubled each photo begins to feel.
And I think no photo in the book does this more effectively than the image of the fireman purchasing a pumpkin from a stall in front of a house that is burning down.
Joel Sternfeld Quotes:
“For me, it was sort of career suicide to work in color, but I did it because I perceived myself from an early stage to be interested in seasonality – the changing of the seasons – that’s what I deeply loved.” – Joel Sternfeld
“Some people consider utopia to be derived from nature. For some people, utopia is the city.” – Joel Sternfeld
“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful—but photographs have always been convincing lies” – Joel Sternfeld
“Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more insidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.” – Joel Sternfeld
“With a photograph, you are left with the same modes of interpretation as you are with a book. You ask: ‘What do we know about the author and their background? What do I know about the subject?’” – Joel Sternfeld
“All of my work has been about ideas of utopia and dystopia. I think that’s what gives America interest. It’s many things all at once. It’s such a complicated society.” – Joel Sternfeld
“I’m trying to take pictures of less and less.” – Joel Sternfeld
What is Street Photography? – An Introductory, How-To Guide for Beginners: Learn about the basics of street photography in this easy-to-digest guide.