In 1978, on the back of a Guggenheim fellowship, Joel Sternfeld set out to explore America and its ever changing landscape. The final work was initially exhibited in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art under the title “Three Americas”, comprising images from his initial year on the road as well as two subsequent years. The work was published in 1987 as “American Prospects” and presents another landmark visual account of America in a similar tradition to that carried out by Walker Evans (American Photographs) and Robert Frank (The Americans).
The images from American Prospects demonstrate Sternfeld’s move from the spontaneity of the snapshot to the more composed image; a conscious result of his transition from using a 35mm Leica hand held to a large format camera (8x10). This new format, with its slower picture taking process, forced deliberation and allowed him to stand back and assemble his shots. In some ways Sternfeld was moving from the sketchbook to the blank canvas where composition became more prepared and to some extent staged.
In addition to, or resulting from Sternfeld’s increasingly directorial role, he moves his point of view higher and back from his subjects. This “celestial perspective” allows him to join the foreground and background on to one continuous plain. Increasingly influenced by compositional and colour painting conventions, he begins to assemble and capture scenes as a painter may. He brings a map like quality to the image; flattening out his points of focus and points of narrative into one large depiction providing the viewer a birds eye view of the scene below. This new compositional style and his use of people in a photo was inspired by similar approaches taken by traditional painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael. Sternfeld’s frames had now become landscapes within "landscapes".
From left: The Fight between Carnival and Lent (Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1559), Wet n' Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando (Sternfeld 1980)
This new elevated position provides a less voyeuristic and more observational perspective for the viewer. The images unfold upon inspection, bringing the viewer into multiple areas of the frame, sometimes the edges providing the most interest.
The collection of images showcases the cultural and social humanity of America juxtaposed in its natural surroundings. They provide a perspective of an America ever changing and beautiful but one at odds with its “utopian dreams” and the natural landscape it inhabits. While always aesthetically pleasing, the images are tainted by a gentle skepticism. He mixes magic with sadness, hope with uncertainty and prospect with danger.
Lake Oswega, Oregon (1979)
Sternfeld evidently questions America’s "prospects" but does so in an objective manner. We sense his own uncertainty about the future based on his observation of the present and the past. Never cynical but always dubious, you can’t help feel that Sternfeld is painting a picture of reserved hope. It is an America that strives for constant progress but at times succumbs to the pitfalls this ambition brings. Any sense of progress is typically tempered by a reminder of the abandonment of the past. A prevailing gloominess penetrates the beauty of what America has become or is becoming.
After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California (1979)