Joel Sternfeld: Stranger Passing

A Young Man gathering Shopping Carts, Huntington, New York, July 1993 - Joel Sternfeld

A Young Man gathering Shopping Carts, Huntington, New York, July 1993 from Stranger Passing- Joel Sternfeld

In an age when so much contemporary photography features flat, grey skies, deadpan, desaturated colours and pale, wan portrait subjects it is refreshing to review Joel Sternfeld, one of the early colourists, who along with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, wrested colour photography away from advertising and the vernacular snapshot to place it firmly into the mainstream of art photography. American Prospects, the book for which he is best known, presents sixty, generously large and beautiful formal photographs of his home country. They represent a ten year investigation into the nature of America, a State of the Union address as memorable as Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1938), Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) or Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places (1982). Like Shore Sternfeld does not present a dark or critical analysis of a failed or faded American dream but metaphorically steps back to observe contemporary American life being played out against the backdrop of a vast natural landscape. Kerry Brougher suggests that he “addresses America’s desire to live in an imaginary paradise rather than the real world.” (1)

Sternfeld does not just accept the existence of colour in the world, he embraces it, isolating and extracting vibrant contrasts to fully exploit chance encounters with the random colour combinations that occur when humans interact with the natural world. Initially influenced by Eggleston he was determined to establish a style of his own and instinctively leaned towards using colour to create narrative. As an art major he understood and put into practice the Bauhaus theory to produce images with a psychological impact (i). As a young photographer  embarking on an American road-trip he was also influenced by Robert Frank and well understood the power of black and white photography so he sought to bring some of its strengths to his work in colour.

“Black and white is abstract; colour is not. Looking at a black and white photograph, you are already looking at a strange world. Colour is the real world. The job of the colour photographer is to provide some level of abstraction that can take the image out of the daily.” (5)

This essay is primarily about Strangers Passing, a portrait study of sixty Americans captured over a fifteen year period, but the roots of this series lie in American Prospects to such a degree that it feels as if Sternfeld picked up the loose ends of his previous series and followed them to their natural conclusion.

A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska, June 1984 from American Prospects - Joel Sternfeld

A Blind Man in His Garden, Homer, Alaska, June 1984
from American Prospects – Joel Sternfeld

A Blind Man in His Garden from American Prospects speaks to many of the unique attributes of Sternfeld’s voice. The human imposed landscape against the backdrop of the natural world that can be read as a patch of paradise or an unnatural invasion of the real world, the paradoxical humour so often present in his work, what Andy Grundberg calls his “Catch-22 sense of the absurb” (1), his quiet observational style and his willingness to grasp colour as an expressive medium. His un-named and otherwise un-described human subjects inhabit surreal landscapes; why does a blind man grow magnificent hollyhocks in a dozen subtle shades of blue? Why do we clear nature away to create space only to reinterpret it in unlikely combinations that unconvincingly pose as natural?

Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979 from American Prospects - Joel Sternfeld

Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979
from American Prospects – Joel Sternfeld

Before continuing to Stranger Passing it is perhaps more indulgent than relevant to look at two of Sternfeld’s most famous photographs, the Exhausted Elephant (above) and McClean (below). However, these pictures contain  many elements that might be classified as Sternfeld’s unique voice, the high vantage point in Exhausted Elephant, the significant lead-in distance to the subject (especially the main subject) in both and the dominant and repetitive colours in McClean but there are two factors that make these pictures remarkable.

Firstly, the disguised subject; in Exhausted Elephant the subject blends into the background of the wet tarmac, even in the 35cm by 27cm plate included in the book the picture has to investigated, the subject found. Once the key subject is found the picture alters significantly from a static composition to a narrative, it becomes an episode in a story, the elephant has escaped only to collapse from heat exhaustion on a minor rural road. The Sherif has closed the road in both directions and a water tender has arrived to allow the animal to be hosed down in an attempt to cool it. A press photographer stands in front of a small crowd of onlookers who have been there long enough to have settled down on a grassy bank.

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 from American Prospects - Joel Sternfeld

McLean, Virginia, December 1978
from American Prospects – Joel Sternfeld

In McClean the obvious subject is the burning house but Sternfeld is not the press photographer from the previous narrative, he is more interested in the lone fireman calmly buying a pumpkin from the road side stall while his colleagues fight the fire in the background. He doesn’t appear to be in any rush, one pumpkin is under his arm yet he still peruses the stock to finalise his decision. Both these pictures are unique moments that are hard to imagine ever occurring especially when a large-format photographer is in the vicinity which is partly explained in that McClean is a photograph of a training exercise and the fireman ignoring the fire whilst purchasing pumpkins is merely on his break (3). This underlines a point that Sternfeld made in the few interviews that he gave:

“Photography has always been capable of manipulation,. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. Photographs have always been authored.”

“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.” (4)

The viewer is easily lured into the trap that photography is a truth, especially when the genre is, or appears to be, documentary in nature. Sternfeld authorship includes laying these traps throughout his work by rarely offering captions beyond the most basic where and when not what and why? All of which leads me to my final point about American Prospects.

Everything about these photographs reminds me not of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston but Gregory Crewdson (here). They are so fanciful, so perfect in composition, lighting and colour palette and so suggestive of narrative that they appear staged, scripted and carefully considered cinematic stills rather than classic road trip photographs. I have chosen the two most obvious examples to make a general point about Sternfeld’s work; he perhaps more that any other contemporary photographer takes documentary colour photography beyond its own medium to replicate creative painted art; authored, considered, artful, rich in a story-line and, by using a large format camera, created over an extended period of time. It is no surprise that the end result is often more Crewdson that Friedlander, as Sternfeld says:

“Photographs have always been convincing lies.” (4)

The theme of asking more questions than he answers continues in Stranger Passing, a series that has been compared with August Sander, a comparison that feels rather forced to my mind. There is no sense that Sternfeld has sought out examples, there is no obvious selection of the rich or poor, freaks or oddities, successes or failures nor is it a catalogue of the Americans. A possible view would be to read the series as an anti-typology, a misleading entomology because the subjects are more often representative of individuality than examples of any clearly identifiable social group. There is a sense of chance meetings, an unscientific sample based as much on visual allure as anything else, of the way people introduce colour into their world.

The prints are a mixture of square or 10 x 8, the poses static, front on, mostly standing with strong eye contact. He uses a comparatively shallow depth of field but the slightly out of focus backgrounds are always decipherable and quite clearly an important part of the compositions (another obvious difference from Sander as discussed here). The settings are mostly street or other public places but Sternfeld does not fit neatly into the American genre occupied by Joel Mayerowitz, Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander because this series is so clearly a collection of cooperative, collaborative portraits as opposed to covert, decisive moments. Sternfeld has the structured and considered composition of Stephen Shore rather than the impulsive energy of Winogrand or the lie-in-wait premeditation of Henri Cartier Bresson.

By using the large format camera and often standing back from his subject he includes their context and it is this context that often enables him to suggest a narrative. The young man gathering shopping carts at the top of this page is an obvious example, his role in life is fixed by the caption, his zig-zag journey back to Foodtown mapped out by the startlingly pink, abandoned trolleys.

A Homeless Man with His Bedding, New York, New York, July 1994 from Stranger Passing - Joel Sternfeld

A Homeless Man with His Bedding, New York, New York, July 1994 from Stranger Passing – Joel Sternfeld

Sternfeld has huge range, A Homeless Man (above) is pure street documentary, others from this book would also fit into that category but the question is whether his intent fits into that genre. There is less narrative here that in most of the rest of the series, perhaps the narrative lies in the cliché of the homeless man photograph. The remarkable feature here is the colour palette, the red brown of his skin, the hints of red in the dirty bedding and the scarlet high-top shoes that leap out from the black background created by his trousers and the wall and the dirty whites. Like the red flowers in A Couple on Their Wedding Day or the tulip in Bank Executive having his lunch he exploits these single splashes of colour in an otherwise subdued palette to create a punctum from a seemingly irrelevant and mundane detail of the image.

There is much to learn from Sternfeld’s portraits; like Shore he never spoon feeds his audience, he leaves his images as open as possible, avoiding the trap of shutting them down with explanatory captions or obvious compositions. He does not just accept colour he seeks it out, his photographs have an identifiable palette but it is not the same palette every time. Because colour is all around us it is too easy to assume that if we concentrate on subject selection, composition, the message and all those other factors we can leave the colour to look after itself but the great colour practitioners; Sternfeld, Shore, Eggleston, Harry Gruyaert or Franco Fontana see colour as a subject in its own right.



(1) Sternfeld, Joel (1987) American Prospects (2nd Edition 2004) New York: Distributed Art Publishers Inc.

(2) Sternfeld, Joel (2001) Stranger Passing (2nd Edition 2012) Göttingen: Steidl


(3) Keats, Jonathan (2012) Do Not Trust This Joel Sternfeld Photograph  (accessed at Forbes Magazine 25.7.16) –

(4) Higgins, Charlotte (2004) False Witness (accessed at The Guardian 25.7.16) –

(5) Faded and Blurred (ND) Put a frame to the World: Joel Sternfeld (accessed at Faded and Blurred 25.7.16) –

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2 Responses to Joel Sternfeld: Stranger Passing

  1. Catherine says:

    The colours are wonderful. From the beginning I was thinking of Crewdson and so I was pleased when I saw you mention him further down. I can see as well how those images looking from a distance really do need a large format camera to get the clarity of seeing.

  2. The point about large format is interesting; I often wonder with the latest generation of DSLR whether the resolutions now equal a film 8×10. I notice that Stephen Shore switched to a DSLR for Survivors.

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