Joel Sternfeld Colour Photographs 1977 – 1988 exhibition at Beetles and Huxley, London


Figure 1: Joel Sternfeld, Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979. 

In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was in the process of being elected president, Joel Sternfeld was embarking on one of the many road trips across America he had been making since being awarded a Guggenheim grant in 1978. “The reason I am showing this work now,” he says of his forthcoming exhibition, “is that I remember feeling similar fears back then as I do now. If anything, there is an even stronger sense of apocalypse in the air today.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Joel Sternfeld was continuing the traditions of Walker Evans and Robert Franks in documenting American life but this time following William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in seeing the country in colour. What resulted from Sternfeld’s road trips was one of the most influential bodies of work American Prospects first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1987.

Beetles and Huxley describe how Sternfeld was, “photographing scenes rich with implied narrative, which were also distinct in their colour and composition… delicately balanced by subtle irony and humour.


Figure 2: Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virgina, December 1978.  

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 shows this perfectly, a fire fighter shopping for a pumpkin at a farm market whilst a house on fire blazes in the background. The scene that Sternfeld had captured was a controlled training exercise, and a fire chief who was able to leave his post when the house was allowed to burn to the ground.” (Beetles and Huxley, 2017).

Along with many others I greatly admire Joel Sternfeld’s work and his ability to capture the beauty of the ordinary and everyday whilst adding that layer of complexity and often an implied narrative, foreseeing what seemed to be happening, behind the facade to America and it’s people.


Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.

I just love the cinematic style and presence of his composition, the forensic detail throughout the scene, the saturated colour, the bright skies and the whole familiarity thing yet strange peculiarity of the scenes is just fantastic. Sternfeld called the underlying theme of his work as “The utopian vision of America contrasted with the dystopian one.”

I felt that these prints were works of art that completely encapsulates the twentieth century; through the ubiquity and ambiguity of photography, the distanced familiarity, obsession and spread of American culture, the strange authenticities and ordinariness of the everyday that always seem to hint at a deep lying disappointment over ambitious and failed aspirations.

I have a deep respect for the work of the American colour photographers, Joel Sternfeld and his influences, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston and they offer so many classic lessons to students of photographic art.

Joel Sternfeld I feel took his work to another level by developing those complex ambiguous narratives of America and Americans within what seem to be vast compositions that now seem so familiar in TV, cinema and media. Really brilliant work.


O’Hagan, S. (2017) The drifter: Joel Sternfeld on his sly glimpse of wild America – Seen from the endless highway. In: The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Images – All taken from The Guardian [online] At: (accessed 20 February 2017)

Figure 1: Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1978.

Figure 2: McLean, Virgina, December 1978.

Figure 3: Wet ‘N’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980.

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