photographing the ruins and riches of 80s america

Joel Sternfeld’s 'American Prospects' is on display in London for the first time in 15 years. It's a body of work that documents the upheavals in America of the 70s and 80s — a land of wealth and poverty, full of surreal contrast.

by Felix Petty
27 January 2017, 3:20pm

Kansas City, Kansas, May 1983

There's a great American tradition of photographers setting off across the country to capture its landscapes and people as they move through times of crisis, metamorphosis, and distress. And now, post-election, with Trump in power, America is at a crossroads again. Or rather, it's reached a fork in the road, and picked a direction. Now, we're all just waiting to see what's down that dark road. In a time like this, it's interesting to look back, to help us navigate the way ahead. 

Think of enduring images of the Civil War, which was one of the first conflicts to be shot and documented; or of Walker Evans's haunting and harrowing photographs of the Great Depression — which showed an indomitable spirit that survived amongst the ruins and poverty. Photographers also captured another side, something less obviously political; like William Eggleston's surreal and saturated take on everyday life across the country, for example, or Robert Frank's exhaustive, almost sociological, document of America seen through his outsider's eye as he traveled across the country. In the 21st century, that tradition is alive in photographers like Ryan McGinley, whose subjects find themselves free, lost in nature, far from the world. Joel Sternfeld's American Prospects  a series he worked on for over a decade — is a little bit of all of the above.

Look: Oliver Hadlee Pearch captures a series of snapshots that depict the heart and soul of The USA today.

Agoura, California, February 1988  

In 1978, Sternfeld set off — like Robert Frank before him — to travel across the country and capture what he saw. His vision, though, is singular. His pictures are made on a large format camera; they relish in detail and a soft vibrancy of color — full of dramatic composition. They are landscapes, in one sense, big and open and full of plains and mountains and suburbs and cities. But together, they form a portrait of America that's indispensable, and worth revisiting right now, in this political climate, as they go on display for the first time in the UK in 15 years, at London's Beetles + Huxley gallery.

The America Sternfeld found is full of the conflict between a new world and an old world, a society that swings violently between wealth and poverty, a society navigating a changing world, sometimes unsuccessfully. His America is one of post-industrial deprivation, hermetic enclaves of wealth, rural seclusion, suburban bliss. People are rarely the centerpiece of Sternfeld's photography though; he masterfully utilizes them compositionally instead. But, almost paradoxically, the people form an emotional core of his work. 

USS Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, September 1980 

These aren't candid street snaps like Frank's work, but documents of America's architecture, landscape, and inhabitants, which together dramatize the shocking contrast the country personifies. Riches and ruins, a plastic fakeness, a gritty reality — nature sprouting out of artifice.

The images show an America in a state of flux — crumbling, decaying, sometimes even on fire — and a new America that seems somehow too pristine and groomed next to it. It's a mix, too, that highlights America's inequality. 

Look: Capturing boredom and teenage angst in 80s America.

Wet 'n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980  

Not that American Prospects is a staid document of photojournalism and reportage. Sternfeld's images throb with something larger than life; the America he captures is surreal, prosaic, Lynchian, and a little uneasy. Queasy, muted colors soften the harsh reality. It's this dynamic that give the pictures such power.

One image might show a new Ferrari on a quiet street next to an Afghan hound and an impeccable bed of purple flowers. Another depicts a collapsing, snow covered, run down industrial park. There's an impoverished young man, homeless, living in a campground; and a guy fishing next to a warship in Alabama. Sternfeld shows Americans at leisure, playing in a water park. Another classic, 80s archetype: a kid in a Journey shirt sitting atop a dented green hot rod.

Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979  

His most famous shot, is maybe his most surreal though. Exhausted Renegade Elephant (try coming up with a better name for a photo) shows just that. On a country lane in Washington state, a collapsed elephant is being hosed down, surrounded by a small group of onlookers and a local sheriff. It's a picture that defies belief. Another, incredibly famous and surreal image: in the foreground, smashed pumpkins outside a roadside market stall. In the back, a house on fire. Look closer at the market, and there's a fireman shopping for pumpkins.

America's a weird place, right?

Joel Sternfeld, Color Photographs 1977 - 1988 is on display at Beetles + Huxley from through February 18.

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 

Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica, California, May 1979 

Red Rock State Campground (Boy), Gallup, New Mexico, September 1982 

Grafton, West Virginia, February, 1983 

Ketchum, Idaho, October 1980 


Text Felix Petty

Photography © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine and Beetles + Huxley

Joel Sternfeld
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american prospects