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Kansas City, Kansas, May 1983 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

In the early 1970s, Joel Sternfeld traveled the country in a Volkswagen camper with his large format camera. For years, he stopped over in small towns no one had ever heard of and saw them for what seemed like the very first time. In 1987, he published American Prospects and became one of the earliest photographers to legitimize the use of color.

Colour Photographs: 1977-1988 at Beetles + Huxley in London, brings together a treasure trove of 30 pictures by the American artist, some well-known and others never-before-seen.

Over the years, the photographer has earned a reputation for his “ironic” portrayal of American culture, but his pictures are also earnest, heartfelt, and sharp as broken glass.

There’s that famous fireman in McLean, Virginia, who took a break from a controlled burn exercise to shop for pumpkins. While his actions at the time were perfectly safe, the picture itself without the original context suggests something far more sinister, and in Sternfeld’s world, the imagined version often beats out the real one.

And then there’s the woeful escaped elephant from Cowlitz County, Washington, tranquilized, injured, and overheated. The creature seems so impossibly small amidst the crowd and the police cars, collapsed in a pool of hose water meant to cool him down. The elephant’s name was Thai, and because of Sternfeld’s picture, he will be remembered.

It’s this push and pull between humor and heartbreak that drives so many of Sternfeld’s most unforgettable images. He asks us to delight in absurdity even as we mourn reality. The great curator John Szarkowski once dubbed him “the worried photographer,” and years later, with the opening of this wonderful new exhibition, the still epithet holds.

Yes, there’s genuine anxiety in Sternfeld’s photographs, but there’s also color. There’s always color.

See Joel Sternfeld’s Colour Photographs: 1977-1988 at Beetles + Huxley from January 27th – February 18th, 2017.

Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy
Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

Agoura, California, February 1988 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica, California, May 1979 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

Wet ‘n Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando, Florida, September 1980 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

USS Alabama, Mobile, Alabama, September 1980 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

Ketchum, Idaho, October 1980 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

Red Rock State Campground (Boy), Gallup, New Mexico, September 1982 © Joel Sternfeld, courtesy Luhring Augustine Gallery and Beetles + Huxley Gallery

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