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"Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus", Atlanta, Georgia by Joel Sternfeld

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The fine-art color photographer Joel Sternfeld shot a well-known picture Domestic Workers Waiting for the Bus in Atlanta in 1983 (Sternfeld). It is a chromogenic print from the series “American Prospects”. Sternfeld used an eight-by-ten-inch camera allowing the crisp detail and the scale the artist is known for. In this work, he explores American identity of regular people and places. The following essay describes the photo peculiarities, elements and principles of design, and displays overall conclusions about the photographer’s work.

This simple, true, and sincere picture has been created with an effective use of elements of design that turn an ordinary setting into a striking photo. Photography is all about capturing a 3-dimentional scene into a 2-dimentional image. The size of the picture is 16 1/16 x 20 1/16 inches (40.8 x 51 cm). Actually, Sternfeld's prints are big intentionally; the author needs the key details to be fully readable.

At the foreground, there are three African- American women who are standing on the empty pavement of a peaceful upscale suburb of Atlanta, which is a background. Horizontal and vertical lines of the car paths and the road are leading and the strongest ones, and serve as a kinetic component of the picture. There are also wavy lines on the lawns and parallel line of the houses. Moreover, the photo is distinguished by the use of light and shadow. Three women figures cast long shadows echoed by the shadows of trees receding upward toward the horizon line. Visually, they are harmonious, firmly rooted elements of the scene.

The picture is quite saturated, but with natural muted color combinations. The color is expressive but low key; alternating green and orange-brown bind the image together. Sternfeld is famous for his ability to capture the game of light and shadow which also creates a texture. One can observe the late afternoon April sun on tis photo. The artwork has an overall light tone and low contrast. The author has also used modeling, which creates value that gradually changes from dark gardens to the light road. Thus, all of the mentioned elements create the 3-dimentional effect. As it is a photo it has simulated texture meaning that it transmits an illusion of texture from real life. To create such an effect, the photographer sometimes uses a contrast within the texture itself. The key point is that contrast enhances the detail in texture and makes it stand out. In this example, one is able to see multi-colored layers of green, brown, and yellow in trees, leaves and lawns. As it was said, the mentioned above features have a huge impact on the photo, especially the color, contrast and texture and helps a lot in conveying the 3-dimentional effect in the image.

The principles of design take the relevant elements and organize them in a single piece of art. As for this particular photographer, Sternfeld has made most of the pictures from the series “American Prospects” traveling in his car. Therefore, the placement is natural and accidental; he has just skillfully chosen what to shot. The photo shows the wealthy suburbs, and there is very little presence of humans. As a result, the composition of this work can be characterized as simple. In this case, one should read the photo from the bottom to the top. The emphasis of this picture is a group of three women; they create the center of the interest. One starts observing the picture by looking at them while their surrounding appears as a frame. And after seeing the rest of the scene, an eye returns to the focal point represented by the workers. The perspective is atmospheric, the houses and trees on the picture get lighter, less detailed, and blurred as they get further away. All of these elements help to demonstrate the depth of the work.

Furthermore, the so-called “rule of thirds” adds the structure to a scene, corresponding spatiially to foreground with women, middle distance, and background with houses, lawns and road. The size of parts of an object compared to each other is natural, and the proportion is maintained. The scale is actual-size, nothing is exaggerated. In addition, this picture has an asymmetrical balance of positive and negative space. There is quite a bit of negative one in front of women, and it gives them room to look. Natural, muted colors create unity and make this photo appealing to the eye, and the perfect distribution of green, orange, and brown gives the work a vibrant presence. In general, one can see a little variety of textures and shapes; they are almost the same and repeated. Repetition of parallel horizontal lines of car paths and the use of a common background consisting of lawns and trees and their texture create an overall cohesiveness of the work. The different arrangements, the photographer selected to organize this picture, generated excellent, artistic, visually powerful image.

Thus, Joel Sternfeld has evoked intense emotions effectively using elements and principles of design. The picture draws viewer’s attention to social issues and financial inequality. The photographer has taken a photo of neat lawns on the perfect street with three African-American domestic workers waiting for the bus that, apparently, will take them to work for a minimal wage to a similar place. Visually, they harmonize with a surrounding; however, they are not at home. Sternfeld has managed to express a delicate tension between the formal characteristic of the picture and its actual content. It shows the discrepancy between the lives of the wealthy, who dwell in these houses with landscaped gardens and the lives of the poor, who look after them. Nevertheless, the domestic workers do not look like the victims one has to feel sympathy for. The photographer has captured convincing and amazingly real moment. In order to achieve this effect, he has successfully applied his knowledge about the art of photography.

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