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Joel Sternfeld’s seminal body of work, American Prospects, changed the course of photographic representation. Over the course of this series Sternfeld looked upon the course of recent human history in the U.S. with both exaltation and sadness. He saw an America that has stood in the history of nations as a place of wealth, exuberance, exoticism, and an experiment in democracy. With each successive publication of American Prospects, the body of work has become increasingly relevant to the present day.
American Prospects: The New Pictures is the debut of never-before-seen images from Sternfeld’s legendary work. Oftentimes quieter and more contemplative than the iconic images of the original publication, they provide a more nuanced and a more rounded view of the contradictions inherent in the American experience. Discovered in boxes never opened or never examined in the Sternfeld studio, they provide us a richer view into an American classic. In time, some of these images will become iconic as well, but for now, they are as fresh as if they were made yesterday even while functioning as documents of a time some forty years ago.
“The pictures that I made represent the efforts of someone who grew up with a vision of classical regional America and the order it seemed to contain, to find beauty and harmony in an increasingly uniform, technological and disturbing America.”
— Joel Sternfeld
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McLean, Virginia, December 6, 1979
Rope Monkey Bars, Wet n' Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September, 1980
Tent City, Houston, Texas, December 1982 (Family in, Car)
Portage Glacier, Alaska, July, 1984
Atlanta, Georgia, April, 1994
Malibu, California, 1982
Joel Sternfeld is an artist-photographer based in New York whose work is concerned with utopic and dystopic possibilities of the American experience.
Ever since the publication of his landmark study, American Prospects in 1987 his work has maintained conceptual and political aspects, while also being steeped in history, art history, landscape theory and attention to seasonal passage. It is a melancholic, spectacular, funny and profound portrait of America. The curator Kevin Moore has claimed that the work embodies the “synthetic culmination of so many photographic styles of the 1970s, incorporating the humor and social perspicacity of street photography with the detached restraint of New Topographics photographs and the pronounced formalism of works by so many late-decade colorists” (Kevin Moore, Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980). On This Site (1996) examines violence in America while simultaneously raising significant epistemological questions about photographs as objects of knowledge. Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (2006) “can be seen as a generous respite from the traumatic history in On This Site… It is a survey of American human socialization, alternative ways of living, of hopeful being” (Elin O’Hara Slavik, 2018).
All his subsequent work has sought to expand the narrative possibilities of still photography primarily through an authored text. All of his books and bodies of work converse with each other and may be read as a collective whole. His work represents a melding of time and place that serves to elucidate, honor, and warn. The images hold a certain urgency, as their histories survive solely through their photographic representation— they are an archive for the future.
Sternfeld is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and spent a year in Italy on a Rome Prize. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where he holds the Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History.