Steidl, $78.00 (320 p), ISBN-10: 3869303093, ISBN-13: 978-3869303093 

Joel Sternfeld, along with several other artists like William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, was part of a movement to help establish the seriousness of color photography within the documentary and fine art genres.

This handsome collection brings together Sternfeld’s early color photography (taken from 1969-1980) and includes many compelling images that have not been widely seen until now. The shots collected here predict the mature artist of major bodies of work such as American Prospects (1987), Walking The High Line (2002), and Sweet Earth (2006) yet also contain some interesting differences to these later series.

Dozens of lavishly reproduced images allow the reader to see the roots and continuity of Sternfeld’s craft: his careful formalism, his ironic sensibility, and his ability to capture a moment that blends pathos with wry social commentary.  

Egg Harbor, New Jersey, 1972 from 'First Pictures' by Joel Sternfeld, published by Steidl

But perhaps surprisingly for people familiar with Sternfeld’s oeuvre, the volume also contains a good amount of street photography (which he left behind in 1976), images captured with 35mm cameras, and highly saturated vibrant colors. 

His later and more widely known work is dominated by the necessarily deliberate approach of large format photography and the intentional use of non-primary hues. Throughout the book's four subsections these key similarities and differences of Sternfeld’s later photography are apparent. 'Happy Anniversary Sweetie Face' brings together street scenes, interiors, and spontaneous people shots taken between 1971 and 1980. The photos in 'Nags Head' were all taken in two summer months of 1976 in a North Carolina Beach resort. 'Rush Hour' showcases candid street portraiture of people in motion mostly in the urban centers of New York and Chicago.

The most thematically cohesive of the collections, 'At the Mall' (1980) contains images taken in and around shopping centers, and anticipates other critiques of American consumer culture such as Brian Ulrich’s recent Is This Place Great or What?  Not all of the work is of even quality, and several images (in 'Rush Hour' especially) seem repetitive or downright boring. Thankfully, a frame of deep complexity and beauty is never more than just a few pages away.

9th Street, New York City, 1974 from 'First Pictures' by Joel Sternfeld, published by Steidl

Because of Sternfeld's consistent ability to capture a telling moment with surprising yet precise composition, his tightness of palette within frames illustrating his painterly understanding of color, and his Robert Frank-like ability to capture revealing moments of Americana, this collection deserves a close look. First Pictures offers many lovely, mysterious, and captivating pictures and it provides insight into the development of one of America’s true masters of color photography.

'Joel Sternfeld - First Pictures' is available on Amazon.com 


Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC