Joel Sternfeld

Joel Sternfeld (born 1944) is an American photographer who is known for using large format colour images. He started using colour early on, when most serious photographers were still using black and white. He is clear that he chooses what he wants to show, to tell a story. In an interview he says ‘no individual photograph explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographers job to get this medium to say what you need it to say’ (Higgins, 2004). His earlier work American Prospects came from a trip in a campervan around America and includes a wonderful (and well known) example of how what the picture apparently shows may not be the reality of the situation. InMclean, Virginia, December 1978 he shows a fireman apparently nonchalantly buying pumpkins while other firemen work on a massive blaze in the background. It was actually a training exercise for them fire service! In a recent interview he is described as ‘A native New Yorker, he has roamed though America constantly……obsessed with “the great underlying theme of my work: the utopian vision of America contrasted with the Dystopian one”’ (O’Hagan, 2017).

McLean, Virginia,December 1978 ©Joel Sternfeld

In Stranger Passing, Sternfeld again travelled around America. This time concentrating on taking portraits of people he met in their own surroundings, raising the question of what we can know about a stranger from one, singular, portrait. He made a ‘document’ of Americans at the end of the 20th century which could be considered to be an updated version of Sander’s ‘Face of Our Time’.

A Homeless Man With His Bedding, New York, New York, July 1993
A Homeless Man With His Bedding, New York, New York, July 1993 © Joel Sternfeld

The people are mainly taken outdoors and the choice of the background is significant and related to the person or people in the image. There is a wide range of race, age and economic status.  The images are titled by their occupation, what they are doing and when they were taken. A Homeless Man with his Bedding, New York, July 1993. Summer Interns Having Lunch, Wall Street, New York, August 1986. The people are central in the image, full length and looking at Sternfeld. The details are important. The woman carrying a rabbit, the tramps red shoes, the woman at home exercising with several half-eaten plates of food on the table. They invite you to invent a story about the people and become more personally engaging than the Sander images.

Reference list

Higgins, C. (2004). False witness. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/mar/10/photography [Accessed 20 Sep. 2019].

O’Hagan, S. (2017). The drifter: Joel Sternfeld on his sly glimpses of wild America – seen from the endless highway. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/11/joel-sternfeld-photographer-america-interview-colour-photographs-1977-88 [Accessed 20 Sep. 2019].

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