Joel Sternfeld is well known for large-format color photographs that extend the tradition of chronicling roadside America initiated by Walker Evans in the 1930s. Sternfeld's projects have consistently explored the possibility of a collective American identity by documenting ordinary people and places throughout the country. Each project he embarks on is bound by a concept that imbues it with subtle irony, often through insightful visual juxtapositions or by pairing images with informational text. Another characteristic aspect of Sternfeld's work is that color is never arbitrary; it functions in highly sophisticated ways to connect elements and resonate emotion.
Sternfeld earned a BA in Art from Dartmouth College in 1965. He began making color photographs in the 1970s after learning the color theory of Johannes Itten and Josef Albers. He initially made street photographs with small- and medium-format cameras, but by the time he produced what would become a seminal project, American Prospects (1987), he was working with an eight-by-ten-inch camera. This enabled him to achieve the crisp details his work is known for. Sternfeld's style-his careful attention to visual qualities combined with an insightful and often ironic view of his subjects was first articulated in American Prospects. One of his best-known images, for example, depicts a fireman shopping for a pumpkin as a house burns in the background. The pumpkins' vibrant oranges match the autumnal colors of the countryside, and ironically, the fire's flames.
Sternfeld continues to apply his studied observation of color to the everyday events and people he comes across as he travels. On This Site: Landscapes in Memoriam (1996) depicts sites where tragic events in American history occurred, including the places where Martin Luther King was murdered and Rodney King beaten. Like American Prospects, Stranger Passing (2001) became a travelogue of sorts. Instead of landscapes, however, Sternfeld made full-length portraits of the people he met during his journeys across America. Each picture tells a story via the person's physical appearance and the rich details of their surroundings. Other projects have focused on New York's Hart Island, historically used as a cemetery for the unknown and forgotten; the G8 summit in Geneva in July 2001, where "anti-global" protests turned violent; and the juxtaposition of old and new cultures in Italy's Campagna Romagna. More recently, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (2006) explores the sites of past and present idealized communities. Sternfeld has taught photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York since 1985.