Joel Sternfeld (born June 30, 1944) is an American fine-art color photographer. He is noted for his large-format documentary pictures of the United States and helping establish color photography as a respected artistic medium. Sternfeld's work is held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art
in New York.
Sternfeld earned a BA from Dartmouth College and teaches photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He began taking color photographs in 1970 after learning the color theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. Color is an important element of his photographs.
(1987) is Sternfeld's most known book and explores the irony of human-altered landscapes in the United States. To make the book, Sternfeld photographed ordinary things, including unsuccessful towns and barren-looking landscapes. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam
(1997), is about violence in America. Sternfeld photographed sites of recent tragedies. Next to each photograph is text about the events that happened at that location.
From 1991 to 1994 Sternfeld worked with Melinda Hunt to document New York City's public cemetery on Hart Island, resulting in the book Hart Island
(1998). Sternfeld has also published books about social class and stereotypes in America: Stranger Passing
(2001), an abandoned elevated railway in New York: Walking the High Line
(2002), and Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America
(2006). When It Changed
(2007) contains close-up portraits of delegates debating global warming at the 2005 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal.
Joel Sternfeld is an artist-photographer 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.
Joel Sternfeld is well known for large-format color photographs that extend the tradition of chronicling roadside America initiated by Walker Evans
in the 1930s. Sternfeld's projects have consistently explored the possibility of a collective American identity by documenting ordinary people and places throughout the country. Each project he embarks on is bound by a concept that imbues it with subtle irony, often through insightful visual juxtapositions or by pairing images with informational text. Another characteristic aspect of Sternfeld's work is that color is never arbitrary; it functions in highly sophisticated ways to connect elements and resonate emotion.
Sternfeld earned a BA in Art from Dartmouth College in 1965. He began making color photographs in the 1970s after learning the color theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. He initially made street photographs with small- and medium-format cameras, but by the time he produced what would become a seminal project, American Prospects
(1987), he was working with an eight-by-ten-inch camera. This enabled him to achieve the crisp details his work is known for. Sternfeld's style-his careful attention to visual qualities combined with an insightful and often ironic view of his subjects was first articulated in American Prospects
. One of his best-known images, for example, depicts a fireman shopping for a pumpkin as a house burns in the background. The pumpkins' vibrant oranges match the autumnal colors of the countryside, and ironically, the fire's flames.
Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum