It’s a broad visual and thematic arc that Joel Sternfeld took between 1978 and 1986 with his photographic series “American Prospects” across America. Now 79, he spent months driving across vast swathes of the country in a VW bus, portraying its people in their landscapes. Always with a certain distance and witty perspective, it softens biting social criticism. Albertina now dedicates a touching show to the great colorist.
A donation from Sternfeld to the house’s photography collection, which includes a total of 349 works, including 104 of “American Prospects.” Curator Walter Moser has compiled a selection of these for the exhibition to create a panopticon of the USA under US Presidents Carter and, above all, Reagan. Although the portraits line up with landscape scenes and industrial photography, a surprisingly stark mosaic forms in the rooms to create a vivid image.
“It’s about the relationship between people and their environment,” Moser says, telling APA of the central theme of the extensive series. The social landscape of America emerges from these two poles. Sternfeld’s vision is often reminiscent of the perspectival treatment of landscape by Flemish masters, and the composition of the image is always reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich, as a small viewer in the foreground casts his gaze over a vast, sometimes dull landscape. , the empty tableau is reminiscent of the structure in the works of Edward Hopper.
Contrary to these precedents from art history, Sternfeld’s work always shines with tongue-in-cheek irony and focuses on the absurd and the grotesque. A cult member finds his place in a hole in the ground, as does the poverty of immigrants, a fisherwoman in front of a monumental battleship, or a full refrigerator after a hurricane. Joel Sternfeld tells stories with his pictures – or better: we tell them to ourselves when we look at his photographs.
The photographs are never unattractive, but rather show how humanity deals with nature. Here, the native New Yorker exhibits a surprisingly early awareness of environmental destruction, using a highly flexible plate camera to capture candid, if not arbitrary, scenes.
Sternfeld was one of a group of photographers who rehabilitated color as a medium for art photography in the 1970s. Yet he uses the stylistic device judiciously. The colors are ragged and appear as if they are behind a layer of dust. However, behind this veneer, a truth about a country shines through.
(Service – “Joel Sternfeld. American Prospects” until January 21, 2024 at the Albertina, Albertinaplatz 1, 1010 Vienna. Joel Sternfeld was announced for an artist talk at the Albertina on October 13.)
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