The Most Famous Pumpkin Patch Photo in the World

Joel Sternfeld McLean Virginia December 1978
McLean, Virginia, December 1978, ©Joel Sternfeld

blazing orange fire
autumn spoils on the ground
more to the story

I dedicate today’s blog in honor of World Photography Day.

I was immediately spellbound by the imagery of this photo that I stumbled upon over a year ago. A few more clicks led me to a fascinating story about photographer Joel Sternfeld, who one day, came upon this fiery scene in McLean, W. Virginia, and snapped the now-iconic photo.

In the photo, we see a fireman shopping for a pumpkin, while a farmhouse burns in the background, a few hundred yards away. In his arms, the fireman clutches his prize, presumably the best of the bunch. In the foreground, dozens of rotting pumpkins spoil and wither away, in what we could consider, Autumn’s last kiss. Amongst the barren trees, the burning farmhouse roof rages like a fiery inferno, yet, the fireman seems undeterred. On this day, the hero’s quest is not put out a fire, but to pick out a pumpkin.

The photo simply titled “McLean, Virginia; December 1978” was first published for Life Magazine in Fall of 1988. It would later serve as the cover for his 1994 book American Prospects, a visual color chronicle of the life and landscapes of America during in 1980s. For many years, the photo floated around the American consciousness, via magazines and journals, without context. When taken at face value, the photo of an American fireman ignoring his duty to peruse a pumpkin patch is quite flabbergasting, some people thought it so incredulous, they believed the photo was staged.

It was neither.

The truth is, the farmhouse fire was a controlled training exercise and the fireman was on a break. That is the scene that Joel Sternfeld photographed while driving cross-country in his VW campervan, under a Guggenheim Fellowship, looking for America’s truth. He kept mum on the details for decades, until opening up for 2004 interview on photography for the Guardian. In the interview, Sternfeld argues photographers are their own authors, capable of manipulations. They can turn the camera at different angles or leave out parts entirely, and tell whatever story they want to tell. Photography has always been about interpretation. That’s what makes it art. In the article, Sternfeld says,

“No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful – but photographs have always been convincing lies.”

For years, the worldwide public has relied on pictures to be evidence and visual aids in understanding. A picture says a thousand words.  But what or whose truth are we seeing?

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