Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978

On the cover of American Prospect, Joel Sternfeld’s ode to roadside America, was a ghoulish photo. A fireman shops for a pumpkin as the farmhouse — whose fire presumably brought him to this very acres — burns in the background. Its fiery destruction perfectly complemented the wintry leaves, the spoilt pumpkins, and from the foreground, with his hands tightly clasped upon a prized possession, the orange-clad firefighter: an American Nero.

It was not a staged Leibovitzian spectacle. Joel Sternfeld indeed witnessed the fire while driving his Volkswagen through McLean, Virginia. However, if there is one thing the readers should take from Iconic Photos, it is that photographs lie too. In this case, the fire was a controlled training exercise and the firefighter was on a break.

But this fact wasn’t even clear to the reviewers of his works (herehere). When the photo was published, firstly in Life, and then in many other magazines and exhibitions, it was only with pithiest of captions: “Joel Sternfeld; McLean, Virginia; December 1978”. The photographer himself reveled in this ambiguity; in a 2004 interview where the Guardian called him the chronicler of “the sinister curiousness of modern America”, he confided:

“Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.”


Triangle Shirtwaist Fire


The Triangle Shirtwaist Company always kept its doors locked to ensure that the young immigrant women stayed stooped over their machines and didn’t steal anything. When a fire broke out just before the working day ended on Saturday, March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor of the New York City factory, the locks sealed the workers’ fate. The fire brigade’s ladders only reached the sixth storey, 30 feet short of the burning floors.

In just 30 minutes, 146 were killed, mostly women, mostly in their teens, and almost all Jewish or Italian immigrants. Witnesses first thought the owners were tossing their best fabric out the windows to save it, then realized workers were jumping, sometimes after sharing a kiss in an eerie precursor to the World Trade Center events of September, 11, 2001, only a mile and a half south. Incidentally, the fire was the worst workplace disaster in New York until 9/11. On the building’s east side were 40 bodies of those who jumped.

The company’s owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had fled to the building’s roof when the fire began and survived. They were put on trial, but were acquitted when that the prosecution had failed to prove that the owners knew the exit doors were locked at the time in question. They had to compensate $75 per deceased victim, but the insurance company paid the owners about $400 per casualty. To this day, no one knows whether the fire was accidental or was started to claim this insurance money.

But the disaster was a watershed moment; it spurred a national crusade for workplace safety and unionization. From the unions’ perspective, the disaster could have been prevented if only the employers had given in to union demands the previous year during 20,000 strong citywide garment industry strike. Twice that number attended the memorial service for those who died, the unions insisted, because they could not unionize. Now the momentum was with them.

Within a few years the city and the state would go on to adopt 36 new laws, the country’s most comprehensive labour rules and public-safety codes. Moreover, these laws served as a model for other states and the New Deal’s labour legislation of the 1930s. Among those who witnessed the fire was one Frances Perkins, the future labour secretary under Franklin Roosevelt, who later noted that March 25th 1911 was the day the New Deal began.

[Photo by Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania.]