Joel Sternfeld's Magic Trick

Charlie Ambler
Jul 3, 2014 6:58PM

I'm fascinated by this photograph because it highlights the inherently dubious nature of photography alongside its simultaneous ability to convey a speculative moment unlike any other medium. 

Taken in McLean, Virginia, Sternfeld’s photograph depicts a fully-garbed fireman picking through pumpkins as an ominous blaze rages in the background, the firefighter’s presumed co-workers attempting to extinguish it. This picture is so striking because its subject matter is immediately apparent; there isn’t much arguing as to exactly what is happening.  The questions arise (as they so often do) once we ask why? And upon first glance, the why is rather confusing. The photo is absurd.  Why would the fireman go rogue in such a situation, and if he is doing so from a vantage point of sanity, what does it say about the location in which it was taken? In a weird way, the picture paints an oddball depiction of dry Americana in the vein of David Lynch or Mark Richard. Something is deeply wrong but we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a coherent explanation.  

The situation appears to be both real and the product of a strange dreamy subconscious, but in reality it was this:  a routine firefighting drill.  The pumpkin-shopping blaze-tamer was merely on his lunch break, maybe perusing some Halloween gifts for the kids. It’s a photographic sleight-of-hand.  

The image has defined Sternfeld’s career and retains an air of absurd mystery with a title that gives nothing away.  What appears at first glance to be a depiction of overt American imagery requiring little context to elicit a reaction is in fact a deeply-nuanced conceptual picture that reminds us how prone every individual viewer is to subjective self-deception.  Sternfeld himself has said, “No individual photo explains anything.  That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium.”

This image was almost certainly more disruptive when it was originally printed in 1978 but still it remains a timeless exemplar of both the fallbacks and allures of the photographic medium.  Truth is a slippery thing, the elusive Big Fish, and just as soon as we think we’ve got a hold of it it tends to flop out of hand and swim away.    

Charlie Ambler
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019