unboxing American Prospects

I only became aware of Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects thanks to (I think) some offhand remark during one of the photo-related podcasts I listen to. I’m not entirely sure, though, and it could be one or another of the blogs I read. Anyway, whoever/whatever it was, thanks!

Starting in 1978, Joel Sternfeld packed an 8×10 view camera into his car and drove all over the US with his Guggenheim fellowship shooting the various constructed landscapes he found, and what he found was its pale underbelly, the part that reveals the American prospect to be little more than facade.

Landscape photographers of earlier generations—think Ansel Adams—went to the beautiful places and shot beautiful photographs, and we—Americans—used those images to prop up the narrative we have about our great nation. Sternfeld, by contrast, coming out of the street photography school (indeed, his Guggenheim fellowship was originally to continue his 35mm street work), shot a different side.

Take for example, plate 2 (in the 2012 edition) “Lake Oswego, Oregon, June 1979.” An aging basketball hoop stands at a street corner. The road enters from the right side of the fame and winds its way through a housing development, over a small rise, and disappears in the middle distance. A mid-late 1970s American car sits on the street outside one of the (Condos?).

At first glance, this appears to be a simple snapshot of a subdivision after a rainstorm. But looking a bit closer, I noticed that the only access to the residences seems to be via garage doors… There’s one in the foreground, then a little tree and some minimal front lawn, then another stretch of 4 garage doors, with no sign of a place for humans to enter or for them to maneuver: there are no sidewalks and you have to look really close to see that there is a little set of steps and a small walkway leading from a mailbox on the street up to… wherever it goes is blocked by the strategically-placed basketball hoop.

Other than that basketball goal, there is no sign of human activity (other than the built environment and sloppily manicured garden in the left foreground). This is a place for cars.

Other pictures tell similar stories, some more depressing and darker than others, some sorta jokey.

A fireman buys a pumpkin from a roadside stand while a fire burns in a house in the background. A bunch of mustachioed men gape at a grinning blonde in a red bikini: it’s a bikini contest out front of what looks like a roadside motel. A mildly depressed-looking guy stands in his front yard, a line of rather fancy-looking homes behind him, holding a little girl’s bicycle high on his chest. A woman with zinc-oxide on her lips sunbathes on a beach: in the background, there’s a line of battleships. Pretty much every picture starts out showing something obviously American and that we all more or less take for granted, if not aspire to. But as you look closer, you find that it’s not quite so beautiful or aspirational as you thought.*

With pictures like this, would you be surprised to learn that Alec Soth studied with Sternfeld and lists American Prospects among the influences of his work?

Others have written much more eloquently about American Prospects than I have, or could. ASX has a review. Joerg Colberg has a review (of the edition I have, with some comparison to earlier editions). Great Leap Sideways has (or had) a nice study of Sternfeld’s influence on Soth’s work. If you can find a copy (it’s out of print, again, but appears to get reprinted every 4-5 years), grab it. It’s one of the seminal books of color photography and pretty much nailed the door shut on all those who claimed that color photography didn’t belong in the canon of Art. You won’t be disappointed.

*I wonder if my neighbors, many of whom are first generation immigrants that came here for a better life or some other reason, have experienced this other side of America. My wife has, and does with some regularity.

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