When we got home I sat down to have a look at our local Sunday paper. In the Commentary section was an article about an incident that happened just over 30 years ago, June 16, 1979, in Florence where I'd just been. Forty one whales came out of the ocean and died on the sand.
with 1979 photograph by Lori Borgman
If this story sounds familiar, it's probably because you've seen this photograph:
Like many of Sternfeld's photographs, this one (along with the very descriptive caption) begs many questions. What made the whales beach? What's going to happen to their bodies? How did Sternfeld stumble on this scene? Why 17? Why not 19 or 8? What was Sternfeld thinking? Why is he so far from the whales? What's the context of the photograph?
As someone who'd always wondered about the image I looked forward to reading the essay. It's not very often I get to dig up old dirt on a famous photo. Maybe the article could provide some background.
But sadly it didn't offer much (although learning the actual date was nice). The author explored possible explanations and talked about the general tragedy of whaling but couldn't offer any concrete answers because none have been established. The cause of the beaching is still a mystery.
Thirty years later Sternfeld's strange photograph of approximately 17 of 41 sperm whales that beached and subsequently died remains probably the best description of what happened that we'll ever have.