Sternfeld’s “McLean, Virginia, December 1978” Photo

Joel Sternfeld’s photograph “McLean, Virginia, December 1978” presents a somewhat paradoxical image to viewers. The landscape showing pumpkins scattered on the ground in front of a small and quaint farmer’s market is broken down by a burning building that is being managed by a firefighter brigade. The photograph is framed in a way to make sure that the burning house and the farm market are entirely in the frame. On the left side, the photo is cut to exclude the details of the farm market while on the right, it is cut in the middle of the firefighter truck, so it’s not visible what is occurring there (Figure 1).

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 The landscape
Figure 1. The landscape (“McLean, Virginia, December 1978,” n.d.).

The elements of the image are arranged in such a way that the first glance is targeted at the scattered pumpkins and the market, making an impression of a photograph showing the peaceful small-town life of Virginia. However, the second look falls on the burning house, thus breaking down the illusion of peacefulness and adding to the complexity of the subject matter. The sharpest objects are the pumpkins that are the closest to the beholder, and they are meant to confuse viewers appearing as symbols of the passing fall and beginning of winter. The darkest areas in the photograph are the inside of the farm market and the first floor of the burning house. These areas are not crucial to the subject matter; however, they create balance and contrast among the brown-orange tones of the photograph. The overall lighting is rather dull, thus expressing the dullness of a winter day. The grass, scattered leaves and branches, and trees give the photograph texture, adding to the variance in shape and depth. Taken from a slightly elevated angle, the photograph captures both the peacefulness and disturbance of small-town life.

If the man in the front of the farm market were standing beside it and was watching the firefighters, the photograph would have a greater sense of awareness. Upon a closer look, it is revealed that the man himself is a firefighter and is choosing a pumpkin while a building is on fire. Despite some disturbance transferred through the photograph, the beauty of the landscape is being preserved. The warm tones of the perfectly shaped pumpkins alongside the bare branches of winter trees create an atmosphere of changing seasons and the desire to seek comfort in one’s home. The fire complicates the beauty of the landscape because it adds to the paradox of the photograph. Without the burning building, the picture would not be as captivating and interesting. The essential landscape elements include the pumpkins that create texture in the composition, the farm market that represents the initial focus of the photo, the line of trees dividing the market from the fire, and the burning house that is in the back of the composition and creates a sense of surprise.

Cropped photo.
Figure 2. Cropped photo (Self-generated).

The cropped image above (Figure 2) focuses on the fire as the center of the composition so that viewers are not distracted by the landscape. However, such framing of the photograph is not enticing as compared to Sternfeld’s version. The contrast between peace and disturbance is needed to make the photograph unique. It can also be used as an example of social commentary on the lack of society’s awareness of the negative things that occur around them.


McLean, Virginia, December 1978 [Image]. (n.d.). Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Sternfeld's "McLean, Virginia, December 1978" Photo." June 17, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Sternfeld's "McLean, Virginia, December 1978" Photo." June 17, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Sternfeld's "McLean, Virginia, December 1978" Photo'. 17 June.

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