Joel Sternfeld’s ‘McLean, Virginia’

Joel Sternfeld’s work is characterised by its attention to societal issues, delicately balanced with a subtle irony and humour. His most iconic photograph, McLean, Virginia, December 1978, was originally published in Sternfeld’s book American Prospects (1987), before going on to emblazon the cover of Life magazine in 1998. Within this image, Sternfeld toys with our deep-rooted perceptions, purposefully manipulating and moulding our visual first impressions.

McLean, Virginia, December 1978 depicts a helmeted fireman shopping for pumpkins at a farm market, all while a two-story house blazes in the background. Sternfeld’s scene initially presents as both shocking and disturbing. This fireman appears to have abandoned his troupe in perilous conditions, leaving them behind to battle the scorching billows of smoke in order to peruse fresh fruit and veg. In reality, the image depicts a controlled burn training session for local firefighters, with the farm and home scheduled for demolition to make way for a housing development. Sternfeld had spotted the scene while travelling across America in his Volkswagon van, choosing to capture this shot with ambiguity. Certainly, Sternfeld makes no attempt to mediate his audience’s unrest, titling the photograph only by its location and date, leaving viewers to their dismay. The artist offers no explanation, no truthful account of the photograph’s circumstances, commenting instead that ‘no individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium’.

Sternfeld’s deception takes on an additional guise through his use of colour. Typical of Sternfeld’s aptitude for colour, the disparate elements of the photograph are connected by an oranges accent. Indeed, the photograph itself appears artificial in some way. The swathe of rotten pumpkins littering the floor echo the fireman’s bright orange uniform, in turn mirroring the orange flames smouldering above. These colours appear too co-ordinated, garishly vibrant against the desolate farmland. The repetition of colour brings an irony to the photograph, as the peaceful suburbia of the foreground is contrasted by the unfolding disaster of the background. The pyramidal composition, crossed by repeating horizontal lines, brings a classical monumentality to the scene and an ensuing sense of tragedy, incongruous in the context of small-town America.

When the photograph was published in Life in 1988 with the simple caption ‘McLean, Virginia, December 1978’, the harmless reality of the scene was not made clear. Shocked by the seeming ambivalence of the firefighter whilst in the midst of a local tragedy, reviewers rushed to compare the firefighter to Emperor Nero, who notoriously played his lyre whilst Rome burned.

McLean, Virginia is a photograph that adopts an aura of subliminality. The image depicts what at first appears to be a spurious facade, but this falsity eventually reveals itself as absolute truth. As Maclean, Virginia’s reality slowly unfurls, it becomes clear that Sternfeld is engaging with the problematic ‘truth value’ of photography. Thus, Sternfeld manipulates our very nature of seeing, questioning the veracity in all we encounter.

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