Joel Sternfeld is an American born photographer whose work has inspired myself and many others. He was born June 30th 1944 in New York City, New York, USA. His Studies at Dartmouth College earned him and a BA in 1965 and went on to work as a teacher the Sarah Lawrence College.
Sternfeld is famous for many books that he has published, but American Prospects is arguably his most well-known. Published in 1987 it documents landscapes that have been altered by man, he photographs ordinary places and barren landscapes, giving them new light. He has published many other photographic books such as ‘On this site: landscapes of memoriam’ 1997, which captured violence in America and images of landscapes after tragedy has struck and next to them, text describing what has happened, also, ‘When it Changed’ 2007 which features close up portraits of delegates. However the book and series of work that inspired me the most is ‘Strangers Passing’ 2001.
In this book Sternfeld documents people of all different social class and backgrounds. He photographed ordinary people in the environment around him and in the environment sin which they live. In the opening essay of ‘Strangers Passing’ Douglas R. Nickel describes the images as portraits, however, despite the images being of people, none of the images are titled with the name of the subject. Its always “The Mother”, “Two Men”, “A Runner”, “A Tourist”. This makes the images impersonal, this made me as a viewer feel detached from the person in the photograph, reflecting a lack of identity, an alienation from society, reinforcing the idea that we are defined by our social class.
The image that I find most striking from this series is ‘A Homeless Man with his Bedding’ New York City, New York July 1994, to me this image is the most powerful because of the way it captures the true social class divide, from having everything you could wish for, to not even having a shirt on your back. The mans beard mirrors the textures of his bedding, this could reflect the idea that he was destined to end up on the streets, it was his fate, a part of him. The image is also composed using the rule of thirds, the man himself being on the third, this makes him a clear focal point of the photograph. The dark background behind him mirrors the dark shadow that is cast over him for being homeless, the stigma that comes with being on the streets, the way his is made to feel by people judging him for the way he lives his life. The bare background also represents the way we know very little about him, there is nothing there to give anything away, the viewers don’t know his story, yet the short interaction between Sternfeld (photographer) and the man (the subject) makes us feel like we do. The hint of red created by the mans shoes, and the emotion in the mans eyes tie in together to create feelings of anger and fear. Red is often a colour connected to these emotions and this is reflected by the expression on the mans face and in his eyes. Although this does not tell us much, we can empathise with the subject when these emotions are shown, they are relatable making him more relatable to the viewer.
I intend to use the work of Joel Sternfeld to influence my own work, I want to photograph a variety of different people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions, hopefully capturing them in their natural environment in the style of Sternfeld.