American Prospects

“All of my work has been about ideas of utopia and dystopia. I think that’s what gives America interest. It’s many things all at once. It’s such a complicated society.” said fine-art photographer Joel Sternfeld, an artist known for documenting life and identity in America in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1980s, Sternfeld’s depiction of civil landscapes continued a popular tradition of roadside photography, initiated by Walker Evans, in black and white, four decades earlier. Sternfeld, taking up the reins of his predecessor, shot pictures that encompassed the absurd, profound and melancholic in a non-judgemental style.

American Prospects was originally published in 1987. The book was a landmark story born out of a desire to follow the seasons up and down the country. It examined lands once stewarded by indigenous people, now occupied by blue collar communities. In the photos, there is a sense of hollow optimism, a praying for salvation within the fraught paths of late capitalism. In Steidl’s newly revised edition, classic photographs appear alongside never-before-seen shots. A firefighter queues to buy a pumpkin in front of a burning house. A crowded audience watches a Florida bikini contest with awe. A trio of African American domestic workers wait for a bus, the road curving up towards the driveways of middleclass suburban homes.

Throughout the monograph, there is a distinct sense of unrest. Sternfeld shows us a nation that is never far from obliteration, or even worse, extinction. A man stands in front of a crumbling Kickapoo village in Eagle Pass, Texas. The remains of a service station sprawl across a patch of grass, following a tornado in Nebraska. Seventeen beached whales litter the sands of the Oregan coast. It’s a compendium that wrestles with the aftermath of colonialism, the climate catastrophe and a crumbling civilisation. We’re given a world that is as beautiful as it is sad. The pictures carry even more weight than when they were first seen, as they recount the story of a nation that has long since relied on a misplaced idealism. Here, American Prospects pronounces a society in crisis, as it shakily points to a future that still remains uncertain.

Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects | Steidl

Words: Fruzsina Vida

Image Credits:

Approximately 17 of 41 Sperm Whales That Beached and Subsequently Died, Florence, Oregon, June 1979, © Joel Sternfeld

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 © Joel Sternfeld

A Kickapoo Man in Eagle Pass Texas, January, 1983, © Joel Sternfeld