One of America’s photographic greats and a pioneer of colour art photography enlivens the Viennese autumn and winter: a Joel Sternfeld exhibition at the Albertina focuses on his iconic American Prospects series.
- Life & landscapes across 1980s USA
- Photos as powerful documentation & commentary
- Dashes of humour, too
- Runs Sept 27, 2023 – Apr 28, 2024
- Book Albertina tickets* online
- See also:
(Joel Sternfeld, Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, Georgia, from the American Prospects series, April 1983; Pigment Print; photo © Joel Sternfeld | Albertina, Wien)
Photographic art still has its noted bias toward black and white photography. We do like our shadows and contrasts.
Technical limitations meant colour photography as an art form emerged a little later than its monochrome sibling. But a few pioneers took on the challenge, exploiting the opportunities for creativity and documentation of life at large.
Notable proponents, for example, came out of the New Color Photography movement in the USA that began in the late 1960s: photographers like Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, Marie Cosindas…and Joel Sternfeld.
Sternfeld’s wide body of art has earned him, for example, two Guggenheim fellowship awards (in 1978 and 1982) and a Montgomery Fellowship (in 2013, alongside the likes of Werner Herzog and Alan Alda).
And a lot of that art has reached the Albertina, thanks to a significant donation of works by the photographer himself. The portfolio has prompted a suitable exhibition with a focus on the iconic American Prospects series.
Published in 1987 and shot between 1978 and 1986, American Prospects remains, perhaps, Sternfeld’s most influential collection. The series portrays the US landscape of the time and people’s relationship to it.
The photographs serve as a multifaceted documentation gilded with critical sociopolitical commentary. A narration of the times, so to speak, as the US entered the Reagan presidential era. The series echoes a theme that characterises his work. As Sternfeld puts it himself:
The utopian vision of America contrasted with the dystopian one
(Joel Sternfeld, The Space Shuttle Columbia lands at Kelly Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, from the American Prospects series, March 1979; Pigment Print; photo © Joel Sternfeld | Albertina, Wien)
American Prospects captures, for example, the changes to the natural environment under human and capitalist influence, but also socioeconomic developments as seen in day-to-day scenes.
Domestic workers in pristine suburbs and people viewing beached whales; water parks and landslides; dilapidated factories and new housing developments carved out of the landscape. To name but a few motifs.
The juxtapositions within a photo of real life sometimes feel as surreal as anything an artist might drag up from their imagination.
For example, a fisherman and rudimentary rod in the shadow of the giant USS Alabama battleship or a firefighter buying a pumpkin while his colleagues deal with a raging blaze in the background.
The large format works with their muted and shared pastels feel at turn melancholic, stark and whimsical. Though as Sternfeld himself noted in a 2017 interview with the British Journal of Photography:
Although there’s humour in American Prospects, it was for me a deeply serious and political enterprise.
Dates, tickets & tips
Explore Sternfeld’s journey through the US landscape from September 27th, 2023 to April 28th, 2024. A valid entrance ticket for or from the Albertina includes the photo exhibition.
(Booking service provided by Tiqets.com*, who I am an affiliate of)
Vienna has other photo exhibitions across at least some of the same period as American prospects.
- The Jewish Museum’s full retrospective for Maria Austria, perhaps best known for her photos of Anne Frank’s hiding place
- The work of Yoichi Okamoto at the National Library, particularly his photos documenting the rebuilding efforts in Austria and Vienna as both emerged from the ashes and rubble of WWII
How to get there
Just follow the tips at the end of the main Albertina page. The museum is close to the opera house and Hofburg complex right in the centre of Vienna.
The Sternfeld exhibition occupies rooms on the top floor.
Address: Albertinaplatz 1, 1010 Vienna