6 Lessons Joel Sternfeld Has Taught Me About Street Photography

by Eric Kim on February 14, 2014

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Joel Sternfeld. The Space Shuttle Columbia Lands at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, March 1979

All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Joel Sternfeld.

Joel Sternfeld is one of the most important and influential photographers of this generation. His large-format color work: “American Prospects” was one of the most revolutionary color works of the time– when “serious” art photographers were only using black and white. Inspired by Robert Frank, Sternfeld hit the road in a small Volkswagon van for 3 years and traveled across America– seeking to capture the American landscape. In his Guggenheim report he wrote that the urge was “of someone who grew up with a vision of classical regional America and the order it seemed to contain, to find beauty and harmony in an increasingly uniform, technological, and disturbing America.”

While Sternfeld is best known for his large-format color landscape work, he started off as a bona-fide street photographer, using a Leica and a flash in the streets of Chicago and NYC– where you can see his work in his “First Pictures.”

Personally I was quite fascinated by his transition from shooting 35mm work in the streets, similar to that of Garry Winogrand, William Klein, and Robert Frank– and transitioning into a large 8×10 camera, along the lines of Walker Evans and Ansel Adams (except shooting in color).

I recently ordered the newest re-print of his seminal “American Prospects” book printed by Steidl in Germany, and was truly moved by the images and was inspired to write an article on him. I didn’t find too many interviews with Joel Sternfeld in terms of his inspirations and philosophies– but I was able to piece together some lessons that I have learned from him:

1. Leave your photos up to interpretation

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Joel Sternfeld. McLean, Virginia, December 1978

When I started street photography, I would title all of my images with cheesy titles like: “Loneliness”, “Isolation”, or “Hope.” Although I had a great deal of fun titling my photographs, I soon realized that having a title took away all of the fun from my images. It didn’t let the viewer make up his or her own interpretation. It closed them out.

One interesting thing about Joel Sternfeld is that regardless of the format he is shooting in (35mm or 8×10 large-format), he often uses the same caption: the location and date. I feel this is enough information to give the viewer enough context, without giving away too much interpretation. Sometimes he gives away a little more context, such as “Exhausted Renegade Elephant”. This is a convention I have done to my images now too.

One of his most famous images is of a farm market in McLean, Virginia, in which you see a helmeted fireman shopping for pumpkins, while you see his fellow firefighters fighting a fire just down the road.

Upon first glance, the image seems surreal. When I first saw the image I asked myself: “What the hell is going on?”

In reality what was happening was that the fire was a training exercise, and the firefighter buying the pumpkin was just taking a break.

However if Sternfeld wrote a long caption under the image that said: “Firefighter buying pumpkin during a firefighting training exercise” it would take away all the fun and suspense.

But one might see this as “deceptive.” However if we see this photo as deceptive– it is only because we are deceiving ourselves.

Stenfeld openly acknowledges what he is doing and how photographs have the power to manipulate the viewer. He explains:

“You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo,” he told the Guardian in a 2004 interview. No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.

In another interview, Sternfeld explains how even framing a subject in a certain way is “manipulation” and changes the interpretation of a scene:

“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. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame… There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.”

Sternfeld also challenges the issue of “authenticity” of images:

“And nor is anything that purports to be documentary to be completely trusted, anyway. The Hockney argument [the claim that war photography was "truthful"] is as simplistic as saying that any non-fiction book is truthful. You can never lose sight of the fact that it’s authored. With a photograph, you are left with the same modes of interpretation as you are with a book. You ask: what do we know about the author and their background? What do I know about the subject?

Sternfeld moves forward, sharing how manipulation has always been a part of photography. Some of it being a little more “obvious” some of it less obvious:

“Some of the people who are now manipulating photos, such as Andreas Gursky, make the argument – rightly – that the ‘straight’ photographs of the 1940s and 50s were no such thing. Ansell Adams would slap a red filter on his lens, then spend three days burning and dodging in the dark room, making his prints. That’s a manipulation. Even the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with all due respect to him, are notoriously burned and dodged.

Individual images don’t have the power to tell a whole story, and Sternfeld shares how photographs have always been “convincing lies”:

“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful – but photographs have always been convincing lies.”

Takeaway point:

When I was researching interviews with Joel Sternfeld, I had a very difficult time finding any articles about Sternfeld explaining the philosophy behind his photography– or the deeper meanings behind his projects.

I think the reason he doesn’t talk too much about his personal philosophies in photography is because he wants to leave them open to interpretation. The same as his images– he doesn’t want to give away too much information, because images are generally more enjoyable when they leave up the interpretation to the viewer.

I think the mistake that a lot of photographers do in their images is to give away too much context or a background story in their captions. By telling too much information of a photograph, you close off the image. You don’t leave it up to interpretation. It becomes less interesting or puzzling to the viewer.

It is like a good movie. The best movies are the ones which are open-ended– the ones you can’t explain easily. This leads to there being multiple “theories” of the meaning of a film, countless forums discussing the director’s intent, and sometimes cult followings. But if a director gave away all of his intentions– it would be a lot less fun for the viewers.

Also realize that in photography, there is no ultimate “truth.” All photographs are lies in the sense that you decide what to show– and what to leave out. The photographs you take and share with the rest of the world are your personal interpretations of a scene.

I think the great thing about being a street photographer is that we don’t have the same ethical duty as a war photographer or a photojournalist– in the sense that we don’t need to make “authenticity” our primary goal. Street photography is all about our personal experiences in the world– and however we decide to present our images is a self-portrait of ourselves.

2. Hit the road

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Joel Sternfeld. Exhausted Renegade Elephant. Woodland, Washington, June 1979

There has always been something romantic about a road trip, especially in America. Countless photographers have done it– most famously Robert Frank in his book: “The Americans.”

Joel Sternfeld was also highly influenced by Robert Frank– and he decided to go on his own road trip in his Volkswagon camper van. His trips ultimately lead to the publication of his book: “American Prospects” (1979-1983). Sometimes his trips took a few weeks to a month– other times he went an entire year straight.

His travels took him all across America– and by using an 8×10 view camera, he took a lot of precise care and attention to each photograph he took. Not only that, but 8×10 film is quite expensive (plus processing) which meant he didn’t snap photos off as easily as if he had a 35mm camera.

Personally I went on a road trip across (a lot) America– from Michigan all the way down to Los Angeles, then up to Berkeley.

The trip was a truly amazing experience. My girlfriend Cindy and I were able to meet some incredible people along the way who showed us around and let us stay with them. Not only that, but there is no better way to experience America than by car.

Of course there were many less romantic things about this road trip– like driving for hours a day on the freeway (it can get quite tedious). But the stops in-between our trip were always memorable, and it was amazing to see how big and vast America was.

Takeaway point:

I highly recommend going on any photography road trip, whether it be for a weekend, an entire week, or perhaps an entire month (or even longer). It doesn’t even have to be across America. If you are lucky enough to live in Europe, you can drive across most of Western Europe in just a few days!

During my road trip, I was able to take some interesting photographs along the way. But more than that, it was a great experience of self-discovery. I also loved the freedom and sense of adventure.

If you are interested in going on your own road trip– I wrote some tips on how to go on a road trip in this article: How to plan your own American Street Photography Road Trip.

3. On landscapes

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Joel Sternfeld. Wet n’ Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980

Although Joel Sternfeld started off as a bonafide “street photographer” with a 35mm on the streets with a flash, you might be thinking to yourself: what do landscapes have to do anything with “street photography”?

Even though Sternfeld doesn’t call himself a street photographer, the way he approaches landscapes is very similar to that of the soul of street photography:

“I’ve worked primarily with the American landscape– my approach has to be look at the landscape to find a kind of beauty as it truly exists. Looking at landscape about what it reveals about the human moment, past, and the present human moment. I mean this is the surface of the earth, and what we do with it tells us an awful lot about ourselves.

I think when we are out shooting street photography, we are trying to share something about the “human moment”, other human beings, and something greater about society. Street photography is also a lot about self-exploration.

I don’t think that street photography necessarily has to have people in it as well. You can describe a lot of Joel Sternfeld’s work as “urban landscapes” which I feel falls into the umbrella of “street photography”. He isn’t just taking pretty landscapes– his images are much deeper than that. They say something about humanity and American society at large.

Takeaway point:

I think that too many of us as street photographers tend to only shoot people. I used to be that way. I thought that if a photograph didn’t have a person on it– that it wasn’t “street photography.”

Now my opinions have changed. I personally shoot a lot of urban landscapes here in Berkeley, without people in it. I’m trying to explore how these urban landscapes have a connection to the human experience– and what they say about society. I’m trying to show humanity through my images indirectly (without directly having people in them).

So I recommend you to try to go out and take your own hand at urban landscapes as well. Try to create images that aren’t just pretty– but have some sort of deeper social statement behind them.

4. Print out your photos

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Joel Sternfeld. Nags Head, North Carolina, (#1), June-August 1975

One of my favorite documentaries on photography is “How to make a book with Steidl.” It documents the process of Joel Sternfeld putting together one his books: “iDubai” with Steidl (arguably the most famous printer in the entire world).

In one of the scenes that you can watch in this trailer below– you see Sternfeld with thousands of photos printed out in little 4×6′s laid out on the table and ground. You see him pairing images together, trying to create certain meanings through the combinations:

Takeaway point:

Most of us don’t print out our photos anymore. We generally only see them on the computer monitor.

However if we are working on projects or series, there is nothing better than printing them out and putting them on the floor– re-arranging them, pairing them, and sequencing them.

Overall I have had a good experience traveling with my iPad, and sequencing and editing my photos with photographers I trust in-person. However whenever I am at home, I prefer to print out 4×6′s (I generally get mine done at Costco) and they are much more fun to re-arrange and edit.

So if you have never printed out your photos to edit, sequence, or arrange them– I highly recommend doing so. It is a lot of fun, and many famous photographers do this when putting together their books and projects.

5. Choose your “look” wisely

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Joel Sternfeld. Page, Arizona, 1983

I think describing a photographer’s “style” is generally two main things: 1) Their aesthetic “look” and 2) Their subject matter.

The body of work which first thrust Joel Sternfeld into the spotlight was his “American Prospects” book. And Sternfeld made a conscious choice to shoot it with an 8×10 large-format camera in color. It yielded a lot more descriptive power– which added context and more meaning to the images.

Although Sternfeld was inspired by black & white photographers such as Robert Frank early on– he has worked in color from the beginning of his career. He used Kodachromes for its sharpness and muted tones. Sternfeld shares the importance of choosing a “look” in their images:

“A photographer must choose a palette as painters choose theirs.”

Of course part of the “look” that Sternfeld focused on was color. He was inspired by his contemporaries, such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shores, and Helen Levitt. Sternfeld expands why he works in color (instead of black and white):

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

Takeaway point:

I think that another common mistake that many street photographers do is to mix too much black and white and color in their work. I see some street photographers who use too many “looks” or palettes in their work: low-contrast black and white, high contrast black and white, sepia, muted color, highly saturated color, selective color, HDR, etc.

I don’t think that one aesthetic or “look” is necessarily better than the others– I just recommend consistency in your “look”.

The good thing about being a photographer in the early days of film was that you would generally choose one type of film and stick with it your entire career. It made it easy for viewers to quickly identify your work, as you generally had a certain film “look” and you had similar subject matter.

But I think the thing that plagues us now in digital is how there is too much flexibility in how we can post-process our images. I find when I’m working in digital– I can spend too much time post-processing my images– and a lot of my digital photographs look different.

This is one of the main reasons why I like to shoot in Kodak Portra 400 for my color work: they look consistent. I get all of my film developed and scanned at Costco– and the CD’s I get back all look the same. I also only shoot with a 35mm focal length, so all my photographs look more consistent.

If you do shoot in digital– a good way to have a consistent look is to stick to presets. I am a huge fan of presets, because they save you time in post-processing, and they also tend to look consistent. I would say when you are working on a certain project, book, or body of work– try to stick to one preset, and just make small adjustments from there.

6. Pave your own path

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Joel Sternfeld. After A Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California 1979

One of the things I struggled with for a long time was to “find my own style.” I was inspired by tons of other photographers– but was always compared to them. I started off being an Henri Cartier-Bresson “copycat” then later on as a Bruce Gilden copycat. However as time went on– I think I am discovering more of my own personal voice by spending less time on social media, focusing on projects, and letting my images marinate for a long time (often for around a year or longer). I think I am starting to find more of my own “style” in my photography but it is something I am still evolving with over time.

Sternfeld in his work was also highly influenced by other photographers. When he majored in art at Dartmouth, he was fascinated by color photography. When he first started shooting in the late 60s and early 70s, he was constantly experimenting. He spent days walking around the streets of New York with his 35mm Leica and rolls of Kodachrome, trying to find his own style. Sternfeld was especially inspired by Eggleston– but he knew that he had to pave his own path if he wanted to make a mark:

“I was enthralled by Eggleston, as everybody was. But I knew if I was ever to make a mark, I’d have to go to places he hadn’t headed. He owned the poetic snapshot, but I’d always had this leaning towards narrative, and so I began to lean a little harder.”

Takeaway point:

I think finding your own style in photography is one of the most difficult things to do. One of the biggest mistakes many of us do is to simply copy another photographer and never push forward to innovate.

I think when you are starting off, it is good to imitate and copy other photographers whose work inspire you. This is what Renaissance painters and apprentices did– they simply copied their masters for many years, then went out and started to do their own thing.

There is a nice theory called the “Helsinki Bus Theory” in which the path of a photographer is illustrated by different bus lines. The problem that many of us do is we switch buses too often. But by “staying on the fucking bus” we stick with a certain personal vision long enough– we eventually find our own style and path.

So I would say that while it is great to draw inspiration from other photographers, don’t simply try to copy them in the long-run. Use their work as a starting point– a blueprint. I then recommend working on projects or long-term series– staying consistent with a certain camera, film (or style of post-processing), focal length, and a concept. Then by getting honest and critical feedback– you can eventually make a name for yourself.

Conclusion

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Joel Sternfeld. Egg Harbor, New Jersey, 1972

Even though Joel Sternfeld isn’t your typical “street photographer” he started off as one. Although he was inspired by his contemporaries at the time and started off shooting with a 35mm Leica (like everyone else) he eventually branched out and found his own voice shooting large-format 8×10 color landscape photographs. His relentless passion and hard work lead his project “American Prospects” to change the course of color photography in the 21st century.

I think we all struggle with finding our own unique voice and style– and we all have doubts about our own photography. But let us take the lead of Sternfeld by traveling, exploring ourselves, and our photography– and by thinking what we are trying to say through our work. Eventually if we are persistent enough, we will find our destination. And remember, “the journey is its own reward.

Bibliography

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Joel Sternfeld. Bikini Contest, Fort Lauderdale, FL, March 1983

For further reading on Joel Sternfeld, I recommend the links below. It is also where I got the excerpts for this article:

Videos

New York Voices: Joel Sternfeld

Books by Joel Sternfeld

Joel Sternfeld has published many books, but the 3 books are the ones I recommend street photographers check out:

1. Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects

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A must-own book for your photography library, especially if you are into color photography.

2. Joel Sternfeld: Stranger Passing

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Incredible large-format photos of strangers Joel Sternfeld has met over 15 years. If you are into street portraits, this book is for you.

3. Joel Sternfeld: First Pictures

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A collection of Joel Sternfeld’s early street photography– including his 35mm flash work in NYC and Chicago. Very interesting to see his early work compared to his current work.

Photos by Joel Sternfeld

You can see more photos by Joel Sternfeld on the Luhring Augustine Gallery website.

  • Roy Batty

    Homogeneity is the father of Mediocrity, Adhere to the other guys rules and join the Collective. once you are in this mutual circle jerk if you jerk the hardest you will be eligible for your 15 minute interview of internet stardom!

  • Teresa Huguet-Termes

    Amazing essay, Eric. Specially interesting for those of us struggling still to see wether we want to speak in B&W or Colour. Waw learning so much through your work here. Thank you!

  • http://blog.tysonwilliams.com/ Tyson Williams

    Location and date seems more appropriate for documentary style… where as titled work is still open to interpretation by a viewer in my opinion. The same applies to paintings, most of them are titled by the artist, yet people take away a lot of more from them than just a title.

  • Vilma

    I think he’s the greatest living photographer in America. I picked up his book first pictures while my girlfriend was shopping in JCrew of all places (they have photo books spread all over the store now?) and his photos literally made my jaw drop. They just crawl off the page with vividness and color in a way that no one else working today quite does. Beauty without sentimentality, wit without condescension, intelligence without pretense, and humorhumorhumor wonderful mysterious humor of the every day. A wonderful and unique American artist.

  • http://brandonballwegphotography.com Brandon Ballweg

    Great point about leaving your photos up to interpretation. An example that came to my mind that compares to this is actually from music rather than photography. The band Tool has long been a favorite of mine and although they obviously title their songs, much of the lyrics are open to interpretation. I think this is actually a large contributing factor in their longevity and relevance as a band. Rare interviews also led to more mystery and curiosity surrounding the band. The same can be said for older bands like Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd – their lyrics and song meanings were never completely straight forward and interviews were not given at any chance. Similarly a more modern band like Radiohead, which has seen success for more than 20 years, are a great example of leaving their art up for interpretation. It’s kind of like falling in love – if someone who you’ve just met immediately starts saying they love you, all the mystery is gone. If they play a little hard to get it makes you want them that much more.

    Loved your point about traveling too! I think people are way too apathetic and complacent about travel – especially us Americans!

  • Pingback: 10 Lessons David Alan Harvey Has Taught Me About Street Photography — Eric Kim Street Photography

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