Joel Sternfeld has built a large photographic collection during the three years of traveling across the United States in a VW campervan, which also served as a stand for his 8×10 large-format camera. From the rooftop of his camper, the photographer captured social unrest and environmental upheavals which were beginning to affect the country.
Displayed with simplicity, the images seem to converse with one another: the almost childlike glances of the men eyeing a Miss Bikini under the Florida sun face the resigned looks of a Virginia family posing next to their pickup loaded with all their possessions. In another photo, the last hippies are taking it easy, relaxing in the grass, while on the adjacent wall, three Navajo Indians are seen seated, anxiously watching the Arizona horizon invaded by the sprawling suburbs.
Taking the pulse
Joel Sternfeld’s photography is embedded in the American documentary tradition of Robert Adams and Robert Frank, which explores social and political issues with a keen sense for irony and the poetic. By depicting for the first time the state of erosion and dissolution of the American territories brought on by “progress,” American Prospects became a classic in the history of the photographic art. The series has contributed to the rise of a new generation of contemporary photographers, making Sternfeld one of the most influential artists of his time.
Born in New York as World War II was coming to an end, Joel Sternfeld grew up in the heyday of consumerism. A keen observer of social changes in his country, the photographer was able to take the pulse of an America fraught with contradiction, torn between the American dream and the coming disillusion.
Seen from above
Like Walker Evans, who was a role model for him, Joel Sternfeld continued working in the tradition of American naturalist color photography. Seen through his lens, the late-1970s’ America oscillates between artificial, nostalgic paradises and crude reality.
“I picked this title because the word ‘prospect’ has several meanings in English: first, it means ‘view.’ In New England, when a new farm is being built, care is taken to give the farmer’s wife a nice view from the kitchen window (nice for the women, right?). ‘Prospect’ also means ‘seen from above, perspective,’ which goes well with my working method. But it also signifies possibility, hope, future, like when you prospect for gold, you hope to find something…,” explained the artist.
Forty years after his first shots, amid global climate and political crises, the questions raised by these photographs seem more urgent than ever and lend added meaning to the exhibition.
By Lise Olsina
Joel Sternfeld, American Prospects Now
Du 12 octobre au 21 décembre 2019
Galerie Xippas, 108 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003, Paris, France