Joel Sternfeld’s road trip photography from the late 1970s and early 1980s is about the complexity of capturing America. He published American Prospects in 1987, a book of 55 photos taken over eight years on periodic cross-country trips. Critically acclaimed at first release, it gets an update this year with a revised Steidl edition, enlarging the chromatic prints and adding 16 more from the archive. Sternfeld started as a Leica-wielding street photographer, snapping bad dye jobs and periwinkle pant suits in 1970s Manhattan. While he was inspired by Walker Evans, he never shot in black and white; the density of Kodachrome slide film is essential and inseparable from his work. Based on his bright urban scenes, Sternfeld was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, helping fund his first tour of the states. He drove a Volkswagen RV like a draft-dodging hippie, armed with an 8 × 10 large format camera like a fin de siècle portraitist. The American Prospects photos are of people, buildings, and mostly landscapes from the multiple trips Sternfeld took between 1978 and 1984.
The new edition is ordered (somewhat) geographically, beginning in the West: bikers surveying the blue of Bear Lake, Utah, and cows surveying the camera on a central California ranch. Flipping its pages enables readers to stop by a space shuttle landing in Texas, reach a nature-defying wave pool in landlocked Orlando, then go on to McLean, Virgina, where a fireman buys a pumpkin the color of the flames engulfing the house behind him. There’s Vermont in the snow before shooting back down to a New Mexico campground. The photos are named simply for their location and date, letting us ponder their social and environmental meanings. One of the new inclusions, “South Texas, January 1983,” shows a Hispanic family at the site of their makeshift dwelling. The child is smile-grimacing and his mother wears a purple dress caught in motion when she turns away from washing at their outdoor sink. It recalls contemporary portraits from the border crisis; unhappy brown faces in America accompany so many of the stories about governmental injustice.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the frontier was rosily portrayed in pop culture as a symbol of hope and prosperity. The land was conquered and free to be bought, sold, and lived on. Once a desert, now a cul-de-sac. In a foreword written for the new edition of American Prospects, Kerry Brougher, former curator of Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum, notes that Sternfeld studied Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “world paintings.” These collapsed foreground and background, creating a panorama of natural/untamed and manmade/tamed life. What Sternfeld wanted, writes Brougher, was to “reinvest the landscape with a sense of narrative.”
In American vistas he sees the marks of human attempts to be charming or efficient, to make money or to play. A dirt road lined by wildflowers in “Matanuska Glacier, Matanuska Valley, Alaska, July 1984” leads the eye, renaissance-like, to the base of a postcard mountain. In the foreground, a sign advertises “MAJESTIC VIEW ESTATES,” decorated with a textbook illustration of a ram. The picture couldn’t be a real postcard because black electrical wires cut through the sky—though it wouldn’t be America without them. The thin but noticeable lines are proof of territory and power, as if to say, “Our supremacy is so certain, even Alaskan mountains can be made inhabitable.” The narrative of Matanuska in 1984 is imminent development; Sternfeld captured a touched landscape’s delicate in-between.
It wasn’t until after American Prospects was published in 1987 that public knowledge of climate change exponentially grew. We now have carbon taxes and UN climate summits. (The 2005 conference was memorialized by Sternfeld for a separate project titled When It Changed.) We know that America is second only to China for biggest environmental impact. American Prospects offers the story of how we got here. In her essay for the book’s first edition, Anne W. Tucker, then-curator of photography at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, recognized the pictures as “not morally neutral… one perceives trouble in paradise.” Artificial waterways made for the Palm Beach Bike ‘n’ Trike club, an abandoned freighter sagging into the sea, and kelly-green lawns in suburbia are evidence of a crisis we caused. The book’s last photo is of “approximately 17 of 41 sperm whales that beached and subsequently died” on the Oregon coast in the summer of ’79. Sternfeld’s vantage point is from the dunes, creating a less specific image that stretches beyond this particular incident. In 2019, over 120 gray whales were stranded on Pacific beaches.
But Sternfeld isn’t a documentarian. His photos are part fantasy, sympathetic to the kind of sunset John Steinbeck described in The Pastures of Heaven: “And the air was as golden gauze in the last of the sun.” Young couples frolicking in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon’s sheer existence, the colors of East Coast autumn—these are also America. Through Sternfeld’s eyes, we could be convinced that this mess of a place is worth saving. It’s not too late to raze the estates and catch a glimpse of the mountain view.