Joel Sternfeld

Museum of Fine Arts

“American Prospects,” the title of Joel Sternfeld’s retrospective, invites three readings of work that represents nine years of itinerant photographic practice. Prospects are first of all views, usually commanding views that extend from a particular outlook to the horizon. Sternfeld’s handsome color photographs are typically of this sort. He most often positions his large-format (8-by-10-inch) view camera at sites that survey certain segments of contemporary American landscape, those that tend to lie along the margins of our postindustrial, urban culture where signs of a different sort of prospecting can be traced.

In photograph after photograph, Sternfeld pictures a relationship between man and earth founded on a materialist ideology wherein natural bounty is understood as rightfully accessible to the techniques of production and profit. At the same time, Sternfeld’s representations are always bathed in a critical ambiguity or neutrality derived from his persistent position of objective distance. In Coeburn, Virginia, April 1981, for example, a modest, semirural community sits quietly between a wooded hillside in full spring bloom and a long, double row of loaded coal cars. Is the distant hill washed in the gentle light of a morning haze, the source from which these vast quantities of fossil fuel have been extracted? It is easy enough to form such a configuration in our minds, even if only symbolically. But there is a more important question. Is this scene to be understood as a pictorial narration of the disenchantment and exploitation of nature, or of nature’s willing contribution toward a harmonious future for a productive society? Enter here the third definition of prospect, the prospect of time: what are the “prospects” when we look toward the horizon of America’s future? The photographs themselves proffer contrary answers to this as well as the previous question.

Sternfeld relies principally on two strategies in relation to his audience. The first is an inversion of a tradition perhaps best exemplified by Ansel Adams, whose photographs preserved the pristine grandeur of nature in the permanence and tonal elegance of black-and-white film. In Matanuska Glacier, Matanuska Valley, Alaska, July 1984 Sternfeld takes an Adams-like subject and steps back from it far enough to include the power lines that cut across the clouded sky and a large, rustic sign advertising “MAJESTIC VIEW ESTATES” on the left side of the dirt road. Impressed by the majesty of the mountains and the icy whiteness of the glacier, do we, as viewers, become hot prospects for land speculation? This dialectical aspect of Sternfeld’s photography would seem to owe much to the methods of the New Topographic photographers of the ’70s.

The second, more problematic strategy is a reliance on the viewer’s informed consciousness to fill the inevitable lacunae of the single-frame photographic image. Potato Harvest, Aroostook County, Maine, October 1982 shows a teenage girl sitting on an empty barrel in the middle of a potato field that is ready for harvest, surrounded by withered potato plants. The girl’s apparent somberness, the overcast sky, and the desolateness of the field convey a sense of emotional bleakness that might lead us to think there will be a meager harvest. Sternfeld himself has spoken of this photograph as an illustration of the decline of the family farm in America; yet there is a discrepancy between the actual conditions pictured here—the plants have merely been sprayed with chemicals to strip the field for easier harvesting—and the projection of a specific agricultural crisis. Although the plight of the family farm is a real problem of national proportions, Sternfeld’s photograph fails to penetrate the situation or reveal something of its socioeconomic complexity. He settles instead for the easy affect of deceptive signs, a pictorial equivalent of pathetic fallacy.

Despite frequent demonstrations of insight and skill, “American Prospects” does not, in the end, fulfill the implied promises of a broad survey of pluralistic America. The predominantly coastal track that Sternfeld has chosen to follow, for instance, leaves too much of the heartland untouched. A seductive tone poem composed with a certain ironic consciousness, it touches relevant issues lightly and then moves quickly on.

Reviwed by Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom.