Joel Sternfeld--Street photography with 8x10" : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

There was a small piece in The New Yorker this week (9 July 2001) on Joel Sternfeld, who has a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as an interview with him on NPR this morning ("Weekend Edition," 7 July 2001), which might be available at From the New Yorker piece, which included one image, I hadn't realized he worked in large format (my guess without seeing an actual print would have been Mamiya 7/7II), though I thought the image included was composed with remarkable care for a candid street portrait.

In the interview he talked a bit about working in 8x10" and said he felt that his subjects took the process more seriously because of the elaborate equipment. He mentioned that he usually tells the subjects that the film costs $7 a sheet, and that adds to their sense that they are participating in something important. It seems as if he is capitalizing on the response that I am sure many of us get when walking around with a big camera, of people saying "Take my picture! Take my picture!," without really knowing anything about you or your project or what will become of the pictures you take.

-- David Goldfarb (, July 07, 2001


Sternfield's work has always been a joy to look at whether on walls in a gallery or museum setting or in a book. (This is at least his third book).

An interesting thing to do is to compare his work to that of two other contemporary "street' photographers who work with 8x10" film: Joel Meyerwitz (who also works in color0 and of course, Nicholas Nixon who works in B&W. I think they all put the lie to he notion that large format is only for landscapes and unspontaneous subjects.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, July 07, 2001.

Not to mention Sally Mann, whose photographs of childhood were done with an 8x10. Some are carefully set up, but many are reactions to spontaneous situations.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, July 07, 2001.

If you had ever seen one of his prints in person, Dave, you would have had no doubts:) Joel Sternfeld was my photography instructor at Sarah Lawrence College and was an artistic mentor to me. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have studied with him - his careful and philosophical approach to photography set me on an artistic path many young people miss. To wit: doing it by hand is a good thing, limited resources make one work harder, and dedication to craft and an intimate understanding between the photographer and his equipment are ESSENTIAL if you want to lead an examined artistic life. I remember him describing to us how, when he went across the country to make his first book "American Prospects" (a definitive masterpiece of New Color work), he limited himself to one or two exposures per day, because of the expense of the film. Unlike those who cry that their cameras don't focus fast enough, that they need the immediate feedback of digital to learn anything, or who bemoan "wasted" shots, Joel maintained these limitations made the photographs and formed him as an artist. I think the truth of this sentiment is made clear the moment you see his work. I went to him when I was a sophomore and asked him what he thought would be the best large format camera I could get for my paltry $400. Without missing a beat, he said, "Get the Crown Graphic. It's a hell of a lot of camera for a little money." I bought the Graphic, and have shot 4x5 and 6x9 with it ever since, learning the ins and outs of flatbed camera focusing and non-reflex viewfinding. Not to say that I'm a photographic genius, but I wouldn't be half the photographer or thinker that I am if I hadn't taken Joel's advice and followed the example he set every day. Joel Sternfeld is a hell of a guy, and I think about what he did for me and my classmates every time I shoot. I hope he's doing well:)

By the way, if you've never had the opportunity to see his work, do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. "American Prospects" is an unparalleled study of space, geography and the American zeitgeist. "On This Site" is also an excellent study of space and memory.

-- Joshua Slocum (, July 07, 2001.

David, Ellis, Joshua, and all...I learn a great deal here, and am even inspired once in a while, so just wanted to thank you for your comments on Sternfeld, and add 2 cents worth. I've been managing my photographic life in competition with a demanding day job for years, and am looking toward retirement and full time photography within next few years. I also have been well taught in thoughtful, deliberate technique by good folks in workshops...Chuck Farmer, Dick Garrod, George Tice, Michael Smith/Paula Chamlee, and others. I'm assuming the for-money work in the future will be mostly portraits, unless the world beats a path to my door and anoints me as the next Ansel or Paul Caponigro or Minor. But I had also been assuming I'd have to load up on lots of new medium format stuff, and fancy lighting equipment, and learn to work like the average portrait photographer. These notes got me thinking...I really love the process of working with my 4x5, and have loved that camera since I opened the box from Ron Wisner's factory and saw all that brass and wood and leather. And everywhere I go with it, people react just as someone said above...people stop and look and ask about it and want to know why I'm doing this. Even taught me a few new words in France. Maybe I should just keep going from where I am...thanks for making me think.

-- John Sarsgard (, July 09, 2001.

John: YES, YOU SHOULD! Get that "old" 4x5 out. The basic principles of photography have never changed - nothing "new," fancy, or "sophisticated" will make a damned bit of difference when the light hits the emulsion. What matters is how you *feel* about your work process - that shows in the final work. As for the people who stop you on the street - that happens to me, too. Sad to say, most of them don't say "Wow, that's really cool," they say "Why would you want to use that 'old' thing. . . does it make antique PITCHERS?" Once in a while, I give them a brief tutorial on why 35mm-digi-point-n-focus-shoot-in-a-bag-with-buttons is not really top of the line, but they don't seem to get it. Oh, well. It's times like that when the saying "poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another" really resonates with me. Do yourself proud, John, and shoot that big film!!!! Good luck!!!!!

-- Joshua L. Slocum (, July 11, 2001.

I know this thread is a little dated, but have to write about my expirience at SFMOMA. I went specificaly to see the "Adams at 100" show, being an Adams fan I found it enjoyable, but have to admitt that I was a little disapointed in the show. However I was totally unprepared for Sternfeld. From one who is not easily impressed these prints are absolutely stunning. To see this collection of large prints is an expirience that I can not get out of my mind, one of the best exhibits that I have seen. Anyone out there been to the show?

-- Eric Williams (, September 16, 2001.

Yes, I went to SFMOMA to see the Ansel Adams at 100 exhibit. I, too, was totally blown away at Joel Sternfeld's exhibit. At the end of the exhibit, I searched and searched for the accompanying book, but the museum had already sold out. Depression set in.

Well, today I got my delivery notice that the book had been shipped. I look forward to having the book in my home, so I can relive one of the most amazing photographic exhibits of my lifetime, as of this writing.

Very few potrait photographers have been able to make me stop and saw 'wow'. As I looked at the 50 or 60 huge photographs of his subjects, one thing really was clear. All of the portraits had a feeling as if I were looking through his/her eyes. I mean real contact.

Question of the day: Do you think his photographs drive his intentions further by using a large format 8x10 camera? Does the added reolution matter?

I believe so, as I felt the men and women in the photographs were in the same room. I don't want to move away from his 'art', but the 8x10 camera was definitely a good tool in the hands of a master.

-- Andy Biggs (, September 16, 2001.

What size were the prints? I would LOVE to see them first hand.

His new book Stranger Passing is out 9where they from this or a wider selection). Mine is in the mail and Iawait it with anticipation.

Tim A

-- Tim Atherton (, September 16, 2001.

Gotta love the typos - sorry all... :)

-- Tim Atherton (, September 16, 2001.

I estimate the photos were 3 feet by 5 feet. Something in that size. I may be way way off, but they were shy of life size.

Anybody know how the prints were made?

-- Andy Biggs (, September 16, 2001. ng.html

-- Sean yates (, September 16, 2001.

I have been studying Joel Sternfeld's books and I really love his work. I would be curious to know more about his technique if anyone has details.

What film does he use?

Does he ever use supplemental lighting? Some of the shots seem to have a lot of DOF with what seems like relatively dim natural light.

How does he interact with the subjects? What kind of direction (if any) does he give them?

How many shots does he generally take of each subject?

Is he very fast setting up the shot? Some of them seem like people who would not have much patience to wait for view camera adjustments.

In urban settings, does he look for a good potential spot, set up, wait for a good subject, and then ask permission to shoot?

Is he refused often when asking for permission to shoot?

-- Peter Shier (, April 13, 2002.

While one of my favorite photo books is "On This Site," I gotta admit that IMO Sternfeld's photography is pretty dull. Only when combined with the narration does his work become special.

-- Bill Mitchell (, April 13, 2002.

Of course, opinions are like ... well, you know. For me, the photography contained in "On this Site" is exemplary and I have spent a lot of time pondering Sternfeld's technique. As with Phil (above), I'd like to know more about how he does what he does and if anybody has any more detailed info to share, I'd very much appreciate hearing it.

-- Jeffrey Goggin (, April 13, 2002.

Oops ... make that Pete, not "Phil." Where's that can of Jolt, anyway?

-- Jeffrey Goggin (, April 13, 2002.

Anyone know if there is a Sternfeld show right now?

-- Eric (, April 13, 2002.

it would be interresting to know- what was sternfelds intention to do this really good work: "on this site"? how long did it take to finish this work? where did he get this violent storys? where can i find inerviews with joel-how can i find out more? thanx ma

-- monika andexlinger (, June 12, 2002. 22.htm is the link to the interview the NPR show "Weekend Edition" did with him a while back.

-- Jeffrey Goggin (, June 12, 2002.

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