Saturday, October 31, 2009

American Prospects Revisited:
McLean, VA 1978

Halloween seems like an appropriate day to think about Sternfeld's best known image: McLean, Virginia, December 1978. I've spent some time this week, as I do every year, visiting the local pumpkin farm with the kids. After a long search —pumpkins are as individual as snowflakes— we came home with three pumpkins and yesterday spent some time carving elaborate jack-o-lanterns into their sides. Tonight they'll be silhouetted in flames. So when I look at Sternfeld's photo the subject matter seems immediately familiar.

McLean, Virginia, December 1978, Joel Sternfeld

At first glance this is among the most beguiling of Sternfeld's photographs. A fireman buying a pumpkin while the house burns behind him? What's going on here? Shouldn't his attention be on the fire? And who buys pumpkins in December? Wouldn't they have rotted in the fields by then?

As has been pointed out in numerous places (including Nick Turpin recently on B) the fire was no accident. It was a training exercise for the McLean Volunteer Fire Department.

A few weeks ago I called Clyde Clark to get a firsthand account of what happened. Clark was a member of the MVFD back in 1978 (he's since risen through the ranks to become Chief) and was on the scene the day of the exercise.

According to Clark, a developer had bought the property planning to build a subdivision but before he could proceed he needed to raze the existing structure. He offered the house up to the MVFD to burn in a controlled way. The MVFD would get some practical training and the developer would be rid of the structure. A win-win situation.

The exercise began in a very controlled way, room by room. It wasn't until late afternoon, around 3 or 4 pm, that the conflagration became big enough to consume the entire house. Joel Sternfeld (In Clark's words, "Joel Sternberg or whatever his name was...") happened to be driving by. He saw the fire, pulled over, set up his 8 x 10, and made the photo before anyone realized he'd done it. According to Clark, Sternfeld had made no prior arrangements and he knew no one on the fire crew. But chance favors the prepared mind, and Sternfeld found himself in the right place at the right time.

It wasn't until later when Sternfeld sent the MVFD a copy of Life Magazine that the fire crew realized they'd been photographed. Sternfeld's photograph was the magazine's centerpiece. Later Sternfeld sent a signed print to the MVFD which has been dutifully put on display in the firehouse, where it provokes the occasional question about its history. On top of that, Clark says they get a few inquiries a year from students or historians curious about the photograph and occasionally they will lend it out locally.

The house is now long gone, replaced by a large housing development called The Hamptons.

The December date still stumps me. I know Virginia is a temperate climate but could they grow such things that time of year? The photo was taken late in the afternoon. In December it would be nearly dark at 4 pm. All of which tempts me to think the date may be mislabeled. I asked Clark but he was unsure of the exact month of the exercise.


wolf said...

pumpkins can last a while after harvesting, so december is not unbelievable. And don't be so sure it's dark at 4 in virginia in december, virginia's not nearly as far north as we live (closer to 38th parallel) and even if it was dusky, a long exposure might make the sky appear lighter, right? Plus, you already know his dates are accurate from all the other newsworthy shots he made....

Blake Andrews said...

Maybe he began the exposure in October?

jon said...

Thanks for the explanation. I figured out that it must have been a training excersize but it's good to get the whole story. Now what about the rogue elephant. . .

Blake Andrews said...

Alex said...

I worked at the farm market in 1977-78 and recall meeting Joel when he showed up one day ...maybe sept/oct? I remember it was warm and he spoke with Judy Ackerman, the market owner, and explained he was traveling around the country taking photos and wondered if it was ok if he could hang around and take pics of the market. I saw him around for a few days that week , mostly walking around with a small camera and then I think he may have left the area and returned, as the planned burn was not until later in the fall. He may very well have gotten word of the planned burning from the market owner as she was notified she would be losing her lease and that resonated with all of us!
We all kind of viewed it as the death knell in the rural character of the area. This house sits above the local elementary school Franklin Sherman and as the "house on the hill" had a storied past. My sixth grade friend Dara Manon lived in the house with her large Va clan..( 11 kids?) I believe her family were tenant farmers and had been there for awhile.
Seeing this pic now certainly proves our worries were justified as the area is now a full blown exurb