Review: American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld (2012 Version)


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Photobooks are typically produced in very small numbers, hundreds, maybe thousands. There are kinds of reasons behind this, catering to a small group of insider collectors usually not being one (This is just one of the various photoland conspiracy theories). Successful (“critically acclaimed”) and/or influential photobooks usually end up being sold out. As a consequence, these books are not easily available to someone interested in seeing one - unless there’s access to a library (private or public) that carries a copy. Just as an example, Cristina De Middel’s Afronauts, which ended up on a large number of “best of 2012” lists, was sold out before those lists were even published.

Of course, a very simple solution to the problem would be to re-print a book that is sold out, in particular if there appears to be high demand. Usually, that does not happen, though. Sold-out photobooks are simply unavailable for most people; and you can now blame high prices for out-of-print photobooks either on the supply (publishers) or demand side of the market (collectors).

As useful as books like Parr/Badger’s The Photobook - A History Vol.1&2 actually are, they have contributed to the problem. Unfortunately, they have vastly increased demands for the books that are listed inside, as a consequence of which many of the books that potentially a lot of people have just been made aware of are now unavailable.

Given that electronic versions of photobooks fall so short of the originals, and given that on-demand publishing has made such progress, it is not inconceivable that at some stage, out-of-print photobooks will be made available again as on-demand editions. These on-demand editions might not approach the quality of the originals (mainly the paper selection and print quality might differ, possibly the binding), but in all other respects on-demand photobook re-publishing would come closest to getting a copy of the original.

In the meantime, we can only hope for popular photobooks to be re-issued - as has been the case for a fair number of books. Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, one of the seminal colour (mostly) landscape books of the late 20th Century, is one of them. The book has already been re-issued a number of times, with even the reissues sold out. The 2012 Steidl reissue has now made the book available again for all those who want to get their own copy.

One issue that has been mostly ignored (as far as I can tell) is the format of a photobook reissue. In a nutshell, it comes down to deciding whether a photobook is reissued in exactly the form it was originally published, or whether it should be changed. Given there appear to be quite a few changes, I’ll refer to the 2012 American Prospects as the 2012 version1. While I believe that photographers might want to very carefully think about whether they really want to change up a photobook for which a new edition and/or reissue is being made, that’s a discussion for another day.

In the case of American Prospects I personally do not think the changes have resulted in a book that is better or worse than the 1994 paperback copy I had previously seen. For what it’s worth, I regretted seeing two out of the three 1994 photographs go, while I think about half of the new editions add something to the book. Your mileage might vary.

All this aside, anyone who has not at least have had a look at American Prospects would be well advised to do so now. As a photographer, Sternfeld has certainly had enormous influence on a whole generation of American photographers. For example, it is not hard to see Alec Soth’s Sleeping By The Mississippi follow some of the traces laid out in Sternfeld’s travels and book. The American large-format photography craze might be on the way out now, though - just like its German (Düsseldorf) counterpart it simply appears to have run its course.

This development would be even more reason to go back to one of the original practitioners and to re-evaluate the work, re-look or simply look at the work to see what it offered, what it did, and, crucially, what it still has to offer. Unfortunately, the art world is prone to either forgetting the past, or to subjecting it to a ludicrous glorification. As an example remember the collective orgasm around the 50th anniversary of Robert Frank’s The Americans. Much effort was spent on evaluating the work in the context of its time. Mind you, it’s a great body of work. However, I was sorely missing a look at what still is relevant in that work today, with respect to the issues we are dealing with; a look at how that work still challenges us today - given many of the problems we pretend to have solved actually linger on, some in pretty ugly ways. We can’t seriously berate the people of the past for ignoring the validity of some work, while at the same time failing to see the challenges that same work might still pose for us today.

I firmly believe that any great work of art is great because it has been able to remain relevant and powerful, with cultural and/or societal circumstances changing. Outside of a purely academic art-historical context, any piece of art has to re-fight for its relevance on an almost daily basis. This is the reason why some work stays with us, while a lot falls by the wayside, or is only remembered in historical surveys. Great art essentially is timeless; for photography, an art form so rooted in technology and thus tied, at least in a superficial way, to time periods, this poses a particular challenge.

American Prospects is one of those works of art that I’m confident will continue to inspire us in many ways, while it is likely that a lot of the work it has inspired or spawned will be forgotten soon. Given we have now re-gained easy access to the book, we might as well use the opportunity to look or re-look, asking - and this is hard in a culture that has become so dominated by nostalgia (most of it fake) - what this work tells us about us, our human conditon.

American Prospects; photographs (and 2012 edit) by Joel Sternfeld; essays by Kerry Brougher, Andy Grundberg and Anne W. Tucker; 160 pages; Steidl; 2012

1 Compared with the 1994 Friend of Photography paperback edition, the only one I had access to, the following changes appear to have been made. Using the 1995 plate numbers, photographs 12, 19, and 35 were removed. Using the 2012 plate numbers, the following images are new: 18, 21, 22, 23, 35, 48, 53, and 59; also the image immediately after the title page (which does not have a plate number). Note that since I was using photographs of the 1995 paperback edition (produced using a library copy) I might have missed something and/or made a mistake. If there are other changes you know of, or if there’s something to be corrected please email.