Joel Sternfeld

Seeking Utopia

Color photography entered the mass market in 1936 when Agfa and Kodak introduced tripack film. For decades, everyone claimed the medium had no significance as an art form – until a few pioneers of color photography disproved this in the 1970s. Stephen Shore and William Eggleston were the most prominent representatives.

Joel Sternfeld was one of them, too. His photographs from the series “American Prospects” attest to a skillful use of color film and Cinemascope camera. The pictures were taken between 1978 and 1987 during trips from the East to the West Coast of the United States. Twice, Joel Sternfeld spent a whole year traveling in a VW Camper and often set out for weeks at a time, driven by the question whether the utopia of a better world still had a chance.

Joel Sternfeld’s angle in his photographs is that of a local. Yet his home appears to have many different facets. On the one hand, there’s the America in which he spent a sheltered youth and whose stories he heard and, on the other hand, there’s the America which he got to know on his trips after 1978: monotonous, overly technological, confusing, bizarre. On his journeys, he lost his faith in an ideal world, but he did not abandon his sense of humor and sarcasm – both are always present in his photographs.

Joel Sternfeld tends to shoot pictures of common people in common settings. Yet he always manages to uncover extraordinary motifs in those ordinary scenes. His prosaic still lifes capture the irony and strangeness of everyday America in the form of monumental images. A good example is the bizarre shot of the collapsed elephant on a country road in Washington State. Are we witnessing staged reality here? We are not, since nothing is staged in Joel Sternfeld’s shots, nothing manipulated – he just keeps showing up in the right place at the right time.

No other photographer of his generation took the question of color photography as an art form as seriously as Joel Sternfeld. Not only did he establish the medium as an art form, he even dared to compete with painting: Joel Sternfeld’s photographs are composed with incredible care, the colors ingeniously coordinated, and his use of light is masterly. His work proves that color photography can easily stand a comparison with painting.

Biographical information

1944

born in New York

lives and works in New York