Photographer Joel Sternfeld & his American Prospects project

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Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Wet n’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Wet n’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980

Published on: Friday November 24, 2017

Last updated

The influence of Joel Sternfeld

In 1980, 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 1980s. Having been awarded the Guggenheim grant two years earlier in 1978, Joel’s American Prospects was later to become one of the most revolutionary color photographs of the time, when professional photographers only used the black and white format for official or serious pictures. 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.

What inspired him

Sternfeld was inspired by Robert Frank1, 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.

What made Joel Sternfeld’s approach unique

Sternfeld used a large format 8×10 inch camera that he had to mount on a tripod. 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. He pursued this vision through large-scale color prints that appeared to be more detailed than the traditional black and white photos that he had gotten used to.

Portrait of Joel Sternfeld
Portrait of Joel Sternfeld
Photo: Jonathan Reff/thegundgallery.org

The quality of the photos

Although it was not the first time that a photographer had captured Americans in such a manner (photographers such as Lewis Baltz2 and Robert Adams3 had done it before but in black and white format), Sternfeld’s photos had a speechless quality to them that was missing in other similar projects.

The focus of ‘American Prospects’

Additionally, Sternfeld’s American Prospects was more centered on the people and not on politics like some of the other more experienced photographers of that era. American Prospects was different because it exposed the indescribable ills and patterns of daily life that individuals try so hard to forget.

Analysis

Sternfield’s pictures helped to paint a different image for a country that had been convinced of its freedom and independence for many years. The subjects of the photographs were varied but Sternfield’s skill persisted throughout, which helped to supply audiences with a consistent perspective so that none of the photographs in the series ever seem haphazard or wrongly placed. The need for American freedom has also been represented by nature in the pictures. The photos show how humans are constantly invading and destroying their surroundings either in person as they build their homes and societies or through technology and ambition.

Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects photos

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska July 1984
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska July 1984

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Abandoned Freighter, Homer, Alaska, July 1984
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Abandoned Freighter, Homer, Alaska, July 1984

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, After A Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, After A Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Agoura, California, February 1988
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Agoura, California, February 1988

American Prospects, Approximately 17 of 41 Sperm Whales that Beached and Subsequently Died Florence, Oregon, June 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Approximately 17 of 41 Sperm Whales that Beached and Subsequently Died Florence, Oregon, June 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Architecture Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts, July 1980
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Architecture Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts, July 1980

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Barnyard, Kenai, Alaska 1984
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Barnyard, Kenai, Alaska 1984

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Bear Lake, Utah July 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Bear Lake, Utah July 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Bikini Contest, Fort Lauderdale, FL, March 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Bikini Contest, Fort Lauderdale, FL, March 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Canyon Country, California, June, 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Canyon Country, California, June, 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Coeburn, Virginia, April 1981
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Coeburn, Virginia, April 1981

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta Georgia, April 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta Georgia, April 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Family in a car in tent city, outside of Houston, Texas, January 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Family in a car in tent city, outside of Houston, Texas, January 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Arizona, 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Glen Canyon Dam, Page, Arizona, 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Grafton, West Virginia, February, 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Grafton, West Virginia, February, 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Kansas City, Kansas, May 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Kansas City, Kansas, May 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Lake Oswego, Oregon 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Lake Oswego, Oregon 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Matanuska Glacier, Matanuska Valley, Alaska July 1984
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Matanuska Glacier, Matanuska Valley, Alaska July 1984

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, McLean, Virginia, December 1978
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, McLean, Virginia, December 1978

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Member of the Christ Family Religious Sect, Hidalgo County, Texas, January 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Member of the Christ Family Religious Sect, Hidalgo County, Texas, January 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Near Ketchum, Idaho, October 1980
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Near Ketchum, Idaho, October 198

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Red Rock State Campground (Boy), Gallup, New Mexico, September 1982
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Red Rock State Campground (Boy), Gallup, New Mexico, September 1982

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Red Rock State Campground, Gallup, New Mexico September 1982
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Red Rock State Campground, Gallup, New Mexico September 1982

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica, California, May 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica, California, May 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Sauvies Island, Oregon June 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Sauvies Island, Oregon June 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Solar Pool Petals, Tucson, Arizona, April 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Solar Pool Petals, Tucson, Arizona, April 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Swift River, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire July 1980
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Swift River, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire July 1980

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Troy, New York February 1983
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Troy, New York February 1983

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, USS Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, September 1980
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, USS Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, September 1980

Joel Sternfeld - American Prospects, Yellowstone National Park August 1979
Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects, Yellowstone National Park August 1979

All images by Joel Sternfeld/joelsternfeld.net unless otherwise noted.

Video: ‘American Prospects’ book preview

3min 59sec

Related works

Related readings

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Frank
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Baltz
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Adams_(photographer)
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