Joel Sternfeld’s landmark portrait of American pathos & dreams

Joel Sternfeld’s landmark portrait of American pathos & dreams
A new edition of the iconic photographer’s seminal photobook American Prospects captures late empire like no other.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 photographer Joel Sternfeld hit the road in a Volkswagen camper van to follow the seasons across the United States. 8 x 10 view camera in tow, he left behind his native Brooklyn and street photography practice in search of something greater still.

Sternfeld remembers an apocalyptic sense hung in the air, the nation still reeling from the abject failure of the Vietnam War and the utter disgrace of the Nixon Presidency. Desperate for the illusion of normalcy, voters tuned out warnings from then-President Jimmy Carter of a mindless malaise seeping into the nation’s soul, electing a B-list Hollywood actor with an itchy trigger finger to the White House in 1980.

Over the course of a decade, Sternfeld returned to the road time and again with the support of additional NEA and Guggenheim grants. Working with a large format camera required a new approach; at seven dollars a sheet of film, he immersed himself in the landscape, mentally storyboarding images that distilled the emotional complexity of a nation barreling into the dystopian spectre of late empire.

Top to bottom: Wet’n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980; The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC, May 1986

From the outset of his career, Sternfeld worked in colour and was fascinated by the ways in which it could elevate the medium to levels yet to be revealed. Colour was a moody, mythic force that had the power to reveal profound psychological truths of time and place.

For Sternfeld, the view camera proved the perfect instrument, it’s monumental format requiring him to develop rhythms naturally aligned with the landscape. “I can wander around all day long and never press the shutter, and it's active and exciting every minute of the day; I'm always seeing things and thinking things and having memories,” he says.

In 1987, Sternfeld published the work as American Prospects to wide acclaim, his majestic portrait of Manifest Destiny run amok. He photographed outside New York’s notorious Attica Correctional Facility, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and an abandoned uranium refinery forced on the lands of the Navajo Nation. Among his most famous images from the series is a two-story house on fire just behind farmer’s market and pumpkin patch in McLean, Virginia — a training exercise, viewers might learn after the fact, the truth only adding to its complexities.

Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, Georgia, April 1983

Drawing inspiration from Walt Whitman, who kept revising Leaves of Grass all his life, Sternfeld returned to American Prospects (Steidl) in 2020 to contemplate his portrait of the nation anew. The revisited edition makes visible histories intrinsically woven into the American landscape that have otherwise gone overlooked: that of indigenous nations who have been stewards of the land for millennia now living inside the belly of the beast.

Taken together, these photographs speak of Two Americas — myth and truth — that have always coexisted in plain sight. “In the future, no doubt, these images will seem suffused with nostalgia, much as we now see Walker Evans’s photographs of the 1930s,” photo critic Andy Grundberg writes in the book. “But for now they speak of a time when progress lost its sense of inevitability.”

Bear Lake, Utah, July 1979

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