Last updated: May 14, In , President Reagan was elected president and Joel Sternfeld had embarked on a road trip across America that would allow him to capture life in America as it was in the s. His photographs from the American Prospects series helped to usher in a new breed of modern photographers, which is why Sternfeld has always been characterized as one of the most influential photographers of his generation. Sternfeld was inspired by Robert Frank 1 , who at the time was well known for influencing countless numbers of aspiring artists and photographers across a series of genres. With the money from the Guggenheim Grant, Sternfeld then traveled to various parts of America managing to capture normal Americans living their day to day life from his Volkswagen camper van. Unlike other photographers of this age, Sternfeld wanted to break away from the generic street photography that he had been doing in New York in exchange for a more complex vision of his country.
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Why is there such an urge to encompass America—at least that part of the North American continent that is the United States? Why this drive to swallow the country whole-to know it as one knows a lover, to reveal its innermost essence—when it was born of many parts, a federation of different states place and mind?
Perhaps it is the vastness of the undertaking that draws us in, the immensity of the task. Or perhaps it is because America is really a mirror, and in the process of describing it we cannot help but describe ourselves. If this is the case, what is at issue in books about America is not just the quality of observation, but the construction of history. When Tocqueville disembarked in New York in May , he was by no means the first foreigner to come to America seeking to discern its meaning through direct observation.
He was merely more perceptive than his predecessors, and in the nine months that he and his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, journeyed across the breadth of the adolescent United States, he observed its character and prospects with an uncanny prescience. So keen, detailed, and balanced is his report, ambitiously titled Democracy in America , that it seems at times almost photographic. Photography, of course, was yet to be born, so we have no snapshots by Tocqueville to compare his view with what we, more than years later, can record today.
But we know that from the moment he set foot in this country, the young French noble man was made aware that in America things are not what they seem:. When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along shore, at some distance from the city, a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of classic architecture.
All the edifices I had admired the night before were of the same kind. This is true not only in our architecture, which again today borrows from classical models, but also in our social fabric. Here is the challenge for photographers who would picture the true face of America: how to unmask the superficial appearance of the thing, revealing not only what its people have taken such pains to conceal, but also why.
Yet they sometimes seem so wide-eyed and ingenuous they could have been taken by a visitor from another country, if not another planet. Of such materials are surrealists ironies made. To discover the truth about America: the pilgrimages made in the name of this unquenchable thirst are legion, and account for a whole genre of American art, both visual and literary. It means, both literally and figuratively, being on the road.
I been there before. In American photography, the tradition owes a debt to the exploration of the Western territories in the years following the Civil War, the government sponsored surveys saw the virtue of employing a picture man to supply evidence of what the West looked like.
Russell—brought back dramatic landscapes, to be sure, but they had a little of the endearing effects of Hudson River sSchool paintings. Their nature was raw, rugged, and unforgiving, and their pictures amazed contemporary audiences largely because of the inhospitable vastness they depicted.
The West, in photographs, was not what it seemed when described in words or paint. With the railroad, and soon highways, the continent lost some of its forbidding quality, but the lanes crossing the country whetted ever larger appetites for adventure. As automobiles, billboards, and Coca-Cola signs became commonplace in the twentieth century, photographers taking to the road could no longer ignore them.
It was Walker Evans who first demonstrated, in American Photographs , that the elements of roadside America—signs, telephone wires, even the road itself—could be transformed by the camera into a coherent, meaningful visual amalgam. Even more significantly, Evans changed the key of the American experience from major to minor. American Photographs is a fond, measured, and ultimately bittersweet elegy pre-Interstate, pre-suburban, pre-agribusiness America.
Even more bleak is Robert Franks The Americans , a masterpiece that charts the face of postwar American society. Frank, a Swiss, did not come to this country to charm us, and eighty-three photographs that constitute his journal of cross-country travels home in on the tenderest of our sore spots: racism, alienation, the substitution of media-generated images for reality.
Where Tocqueville saw America as the model for the future, Frank saw it as a dead-end. But it is more than just another sad poem, I think, for like the best of its peers and parents it fights hard to balance indignation and consolation. Those rusted coal cars, that basketball hoop poised near the Grand Canyon, the streaked faces of the rainbow chasers whose pots came up empty outside of Houston—for all that these speak of malaise, they also speak of endurance.
That, at least, is the promise of these pictures, and their solace. Elsewhere, much is folly: the fireman shops for pumpkins while a house burns. The jokes are false fronts, marvel made of brick and wood. They are connected by the thread of their incursions on the landscape of today. As views in the nineteenth-century tradition, the images contain such a diversity of information and feeling that we can overlook their inherent didactic qualities.
Fortunately, this combination has created a suite of pictures as dense and meaningful as they are beautiful. They will seem less ironic and more totemic, and their sometimes acid social commentary will lose much of its bite. But for now they speak of a time when progress lost its sense of inevitability, when the lands lost its last pretense to innocence, when the spirit of individualism flickered for want of fresh air.
It is a tricky business, balancing these messages, and it does not make for ideological simplicity or political instrumentality. However, in these photographs Sternfeld manages to eke a measure of harmony out of in assortment of follies, which makes American Prospects a metonym for the state of our times. But we know that from the moment he set foot in this country, the young French noble man was made aware that in America things are not what they seem: When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the East River, I was surprised to perceive along shore, at some distance from the city, a number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were of classic architecture.
American Prospects by Sternfeld
Family in a car in tent city, outside of Houston, Texas, January The American photographer, celebrated for his ground-breaking colour work, gives an insight into his classic work, and why he believes "a photographic artist can no longer simply be aesthetic". The hardened, wary faces of a family crammed into a beat-up car in a tent city outside Houston, Texas are gripping — and timeless. McLean, Virginia, December
40 years on and Joel Sternfeld’s photo book American Prospects has never been more relevant
The renowned photographer has revised his most noteworthy book, featuring 16 unpublished images depicting the ironic, gritty and uneasy beauty of the American landscape. In , esteemed photographer Joel Sternfeld first published his critically acclaimed American Prospects. Chronicling life across the US, the series became an instant classic for its documentation of the environment, and American culture and society. Four decades have passed since he started shooting the series in and these photographs hold as much relevance as ever. Iconic works have been included — such as the image of a fireman buying pumpkins while a house burns behind him — with the addition of 16 new and unpublished images. The thing is, take time away from any given project and it will allow a new perspective to grow.