June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

by Joel Sternfeld

At those points where the land and its people teeter in a continuing contest of will, where the past and the future visibly sandwich the present, photographer Joel Sternfeld finds his American Prospects. The title stands for considerations of possibility as well as for literal vantage points, and in Sternfeld’s work, the two are interdependent. The physical link between them is Sternfeld’s 8-inch by 10-inch view camera, his steady companion on the cross-country trips he’s made since 1978 in his Volkswagen camper. Unwieldy but virtually unmatched in sharpness, the view camera allows Sternfeld to give his subject matter context and scale, while preserving detail. A junior high school football team at practice in Kayenta, Ariz, is dwarfed, along with the school’s cinder block buildings, by the tanned buttes behind them. A cosmic broom could sweep away these intruders in a twinkling. Yet the picture also shows how at ease and absorbed these tiny figures are, listening to their coach. Sternfeld respects not only the tenacity of the land but humanity’s way of carrying on with being human in the face of any incongruity. Not that every contradiction can be condoned. Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus, Atlanta, Georgia, April 1983 presents a suburban paradise of rolling hills, verdant lawns, long driveways and long shadows—it is late afternoon, and there is no place here for the three black women, who wait awkwardly for the bus to carry them back to the city. Sternfeld’s somberly sensuous use of color is not incidental to the mood and meaning of his pictures. A double line of black coal cars snaking past a West Virginia hillside of redbud trees in bloom evokes mixed emotions: rapture and regret. In Sternfeld’s America, nature and man are well matched lover/combatants, proud, resourceful, stubborn, dumb, funny and mysterious. (Times Books, $40)

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