Learn From The Masters: Joel Sternfeld
Large format documentary combined with an all American road trip—that’s what Joel Sternfeld is all about for me. I started to look at his work a few years after I graduated from studying photographic college. His work influenced me a lot and his photographs are probably the reason why I got into medium format photography. What I like, is the distance he takes when shooting. Even when he shoots portraits, he includes a lot of the surrounding environment while still maintaining a calm and simple composition.
There’s a lot to discover in his photographs and every object and every color has its place. Nothing disturbs the simplicity of his photographs. Making simpler and calmer compositions can often help you to make better photographs. Pay more attention to details and make sure everything in the frame belongs there.
The fact that he uses a large format camera significantly affects his compositions. A big and heavy camera changes the process of making photos. Using expensive large format film will make you think twice about pressing the shutter. You have to slow down the process of framing and composing—just setting up a camera like that takes time.
These days, with social media and other sharing platforms, photographers want to show and share their work as soon as possible and sadly, it shows. Everywhere I look, I see the same locations, the same kind of photos and the same filters—over and over again. It’s probably the main reason why film is getting so popular. Lots of photographers don’t want people to consume their photography at lighting speed so, they decide to slow down themselves.
That’s exactly what I see in Joel Sternfeld’s work. A calm but clear approach to the process of creating photography. His work is not about action and excitement but emotion and atmosphere—self reflection even. There’s no movement in his photos and you need to take your time to look at the whole image. I find looking at Sternfeld’s work soothing and calming. I’d love to have a print of his work hanging on my bedroom wall…
Joel Sternfeld & the American Road Trip
I also like his work because it shows roadside America. Mundane scenes that evoke the feeling of being out there, free, while exploring America. He clearly follows in the footsteps of Walker Evans and Robert Frank and has traveled across the United States to create most of his work.
Documenting scenes along the way when on a road trip has a very nostalgic feeling to it. It’s something I enjoy doing myself and somehow, if you’ve done it yourself, you’ll know it adds some kind of poetry to the process of taking photographs and documenting a road trip. You should try it at least one time. Take your camera and leave on a road trip. Don’t make a plan, just document whatever you see along the way. I promise you’ll like it…
Joel Sternfeld’s work is laced with a touch of irony and humor. It’s not about making fun of people or society—just having an interest in what defines being human and putting it all into perspective.
Just like Sternfeld, photography for me is observing people and society and taking out those scenes that intrigue or interest me. Humor is an important part of my life so it’s normal that it’s visible in my photography too.
Looking at Joel Sternfeld’s photographs made me realize that I also wanted to slow down my photography. A few years ago, I was looking for ways to change how I approached the process of taking photos and at some point, I decided to make the switch to a medium format system. I did’t feel like going for a large format film camera because I felt I wasn’t ready for that. My medium format Pentax 645z is a great compromise.
I’ve changed how I take photos and I definitely slowed down but didn’t loose the advantages of a digital system. The Pentax 645z is perfect for me. And now, traveling around the world, a large format camera would be a burden. I’m happy with medium format for now, even when shooting street photography.
His work has also influenced the way I take portraits. I love the way how he puts the subject in the middle and most of the time shoots full body portraits. There’s just something about a full body portrait that a close-up can’t express. Posture, clothes, shoes… By taking a close up, you basically cut out those things and I feel they’re a part of someone’s personality, so they should be included.
The surroundings also make a portrait much stronger if you carefully select the background for your portraits. The portraits I took for my award-winning series ‘Grey Summer Garden’ are heavily influenced by Sternfeld’s work. Here’s an example of one of those portraits:
Books by Joel Sternfeld
American Prospects is Joel Sternfeld's most known book that explores the irony of human-altered landscapes in the United States of America. He photographed ordinary things like unsuccessful villages and towns and barren-looking landscapes. A true inspiration for a lot of today’s photographers and documentarians…
For many years, Joel Sternfeld traveled across the United States and took portrait photos of regular Americans he met along the road. It resulted in the book Stranger Passing. He photographs his subjects in mundane and normal situations which makes them feel real and alive… I use some of his techniques to photograph people.
Joel Sternfeld was born on June 30, 1944. He’s a fine-art color photographer known for his large-format documentary photographs of the United States. He began taking photos in 1970. Color is an important element on his photographs.
He has many works in the collections of the MOMA in New York City and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. He has influenced and inspired a lot of large format film photographers today.
Sternfeld earned a BA from Dartmouth College and teaches photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. From 1991 to 1994, Sternfeld worked with Melinda Hunt to document New York City's public cemetery on Hart Island.