Joel Sternfeld – American Prospects

Copyright 1987 Joel Sternfeld; 1994 stiff-cover edition published by Chronicle Books in conjunction with The Friends of Photography

I will first have to admit that I like Joel Sternfeld’s urban landscape photographs thus discussing his first book, “American Prospects” , will be a relatively easy task for me.

Sternfeld photographs the urban landscape in a similar vein as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shores. For the Sternfeld photographs you have to pay particular attention to the edges of the photographs which is were you find some of the most interesting content. Such as his iconic photograph, McLean, Virginia, December 1978, which is the cover of the book, above. It is easy to become absorbed by the on-going house in flames and the battle to preserve it and then you notice the fireman in the lower corner holding one pumpkin perhaps shopping for a second. I find myself thinking is this fireman looking for pumpkins while the house burns for real?

Then I realize that I can doubt what I see because that Crewdson has recently attempted to recreate a similar photograph, which in a way is not “real”.

Likewise, one of my favorites photographs is After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California, July 1979. What appears to be a very interesting urban landscape photograph takes on new meaning after you notice the car almost buried in the foreground at the base of the wash. People, who are out in the desert building homes and structures and yet still at the mercy and whim of natural forces.

His photographs are usually straight on, subtle colors and are making wiry social comments. Looking at them today that particular social edginess that was noted in the late 1980’s is a bit diminished by the photographers who have studied his work and continued to work in a similar vein. Nevertheless his social urban landscape is well seen and photographed with a subtle wit and humor.

I am reviewing the 1994 stiffcover (perfect bound, aka “paperback”) version, published by Chronicle Books  in conjunction with The Friends of Photography. The original hardcover version of this book was published in 1987 by The Friends of Photography, #58 in their series of book publications. The forward was written by Andy Grundberg, Director, The Friends of Photography. The large color photographs are printed single image per double-page spread with a facing caption and the photographs are very enjoyable to read in this 12 x 10″ designed book.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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