40 years on and Joel Sternfeld’s photo book American Prospects has never been more relevant
The renowned photographer has revised his most noteworthy book, featuring 16 unpublished images depicting the ironic, gritty and uneasy beauty of the American landscape.
- Ayla Angelos
- 28 April 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
In 1987, esteemed photographer Joel Sternfeld first published his critically acclaimed American Prospects. Chronicling life across the US, the series became an instant classic for its documentation of the environment, and American culture and society. Often regarded as one of the country’s finest colour photographers, Joel’s landscapes became a testament to the calm, gritty and uneasily beautiful scenes found on the road. Four decades have passed since he started shooting the series in 1977 and these photographs hold as much relevance as ever.
Now Joel has launched an updated version of American Prospects with publisher Steidl, featuring texts by Kerry Brougher, Andy Grunberg and Anne W. Tucker. Iconic works have been included – such as the image of a fireman buying pumpkins while a house burns behind him – with the addition of 16 new and unpublished images. Running through his online archive, Joel explains which are new: there’s a hippie commune, a group of Navajo Native Americans sitting in the landscape, an African-American man standing in front of a train. “The women standing on a roof in Alaska, and the last picture – Mexican immigrants outside their home in Texas – are in the new edition,” Joel tells It’s Nice That, giving us a rounded insight into what has been added to this already-momentous collection.
The thing is, take time away from any given project and it will allow a new perspective to grow. For Joel, it was a second take (and a few years) that enabled him to see beyond the original contacts and create something new – but that’s not all. “One reason for republishing the title is that I wanted to print it again,” he says. “It’s just one of those books that – I don’t know how many editions we’ve gone through, about three, four or five – we just printed again. You know, if you’d like to add to the book, now is a good time to do it.”
With this in mind, Joel began the process for this edition by sifting through the negatives from the original American Prospects shoot. “I was really shocked,” he recalls, “because there were negatives that I never bothered to make into contacts in the past.” He hadn’t turned them into contacts for several reasons, he says, one being that he didn’t have a lot of money at the time – “a piece of film cost seven dollars to process, seven dollars for the contacts, and I just couldn’t do everything.”
Back in the 1970s, Joel earned a BA from Dartmouth College before teaching photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York (where he now holds the Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History). It was around this time that he’d started to take colour photographs after discovering and learning the colour theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. The late 1980s arrived and Joel’s landmark book came with it, exploring the landscapes of the United States with irony and grit. Since then, Joel has had a fulfilling career working with artist Melinda Hunt documenting New York City’s public cemetery on Hart Island, publishing various books on class and stereotypes found in America, and he’s received numerous awards (he was the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and spent a year in Italy on a Rome Prize).
While working on the series, Joel would be shooting five or six negatives a day and “storyboarding mentally” as he traversed the roads in his Volkswagen camper – “there were no cell phones.” He would even spend around six months without seeing the negatives, and in “certain cases” that was OK – he’d be storyboarding late at night with things he’d “presume” were interesting. “And suddenly, a year went past and I was seeing them for the first time – I was amazed, it’s so interesting when you give yourself a second perspective.”
He now refers to two images, one of a family on the road who have all their belongings with them and a pick-up truck, the other depicting a family of Mexican immigrants outside their shop. “It seems to me that the lower-income people in America are still in dire straits,” he says, discussing how the family beside the pick-up evokes a strong narrative for the photographer. “It just astounds me that such a place could exist in America. I’m also interested in the story behind it, because it reflects the entire treatment of Native Americans by the white community.”
The revision of American Prospects is a stark reminder that such issues of course continue to this day, despite the fact that the book was initially published over three decades ago. As for the future, Joel plans to launch a new publication called History and Pictures with supporting text. But is this the last revision of his iconic series? “For me, American Prospects is done for the time being.”