Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978

On the cover of American Prospect, Joel Sternfeld’s ode to roadside America, was a ghoulish photo. A fireman shops for a pumpkin as the farmhouse — whose fire presumably brought him to this very acres — burns in the background. Its fiery destruction perfectly complemented the wintry leaves, the spoilt pumpkins, and from the foreground, with his hands tightly clasped upon a prized possession, the orange-clad firefighter: an American Nero.

It was not a staged Leibovitzian spectacle. Joel Sternfeld indeed witnessed the fire while driving his Volkswagen through McLean, Virginia. However, if there is one thing the readers should take from Iconic Photos, it is that photographs lie too. In this case, the fire was a controlled training exercise and the firefighter was on a break.

But this fact wasn’t even clear to the reviewers of his works (herehere). When the photo was published, firstly in Life, and then in many other magazines and exhibitions, it was only with pithiest of captions: “Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978”. The photographer himself reveled in this ambiguity; in a 2004 interview where the Guardian called him the chronicler of “the sinister curiousness of modern America”, he confided:

“Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.”


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