Sternfeld’s America

In his renowned series, American Prospects, Joel Sternfeld traverses the US in order to capture the essential character of the country. First exhibited at MoMA, New York, then subsequently published in book form in 1987, it is considered as one of the most influential bodies of work from the period. Beetles + Huxley, London, revisits Sternfeld’s collection in Colour Photographs: 1977-1988, the first solo exhibition in the UK for 15 years, featuring 30 vintage dye transfer and chromogenic prints.

The American documentary tradition was established in the 1930s by Walker Evans, and continued by Robert Frank two decades later. Through his distinct compositions, rich with implied narratives, Sternfeld not only sustained the practice of these foundational figures, he also expanded on the trajectory of the medium. The inclusion of early pieces in the exhibition demonstrate initial studies into conceptual strategies and colour, elements that would come to characterise Sternfeld’s images.

Alongside bold palettes, his oeuvre is defined by a subtle evocation of societal issues, enriched with a precise balance of irony and humour. The series depicts desolate towns and barren-looking landscapes in a comment on the pertinent socio-political issues of the late 20th century. In McLean, Virginia, December 1978, this equilibrium is revealed. It portrays a house on fire in the background, contrasting with a seemingly oblivious fireman shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market.  Despite the immediate feel that the composition presents, giving the sense that it was captured in a moment of spontaneity, the scene depicted was a controlled training exercise. An engagement with the problematic “truth value” of photography becomes apparent within the covert story behind one of the artist’s most recognised images.

Giles Huxley-Parlour, director of the gallery, notes: “Sternfeld’s work has become an influential part of art history and has shaped the way that the world looks at American life and culture. His pioneering early colour photographs present a country of immense beauty and opportunity, but one seemingly stuck at a turning point: proud of its past as a noble experiment in democracy, but fraught with various new and disturbing forces. His work resonates strongly today at a time of such upheaval in American politics and society.”

Colour Photographs: 1977-1988, Beetles + Huxley, London, from 26 January – 18 February.

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1. Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virginia, December 1978 (1978). Courtesy of the artist and the gallery.