Burning down the house

This is one of my favourite images, the work of the American photographer, Joel Sternfeld. I’ve known it for a long time, and have even written a poem about it, but the poem never quite lived up to the alchemic magic of the image. To know that the fire was not an accident – part of a training exercise by the local fire department on a house scheduled for demolition to make way for a new development – does not diminish its power (but does explain why the fireman in the foreground is calmly buying a pumpkin from the farm stand while the house goes up in flames).  I’d always secretly wondered if the picture had been staged, but apart from the fire department training exercise, the rest was seemingly a happy coincidence – the photographer driving through McLean, Virginia (as you do …) at just the right moment.

What does it for me is the perfect arrangement of visual elements. Maybe that’s why my poem didn’t work; it’s a poem already, beautifully measured. I like how the eye is made to follow the line of metal fence posts on the right, bisected by a line of small trees that runs alongside a path that divides field from house. This sets up the division of areas – if we’re thinking of poems, I’d say the picture is in tercets – the pumpkins in the field, and further back the farm stand, and further back the house. These areas are marked by a colour – orange, of course: the eye moves from the disarray of pumpkins on the ground, up to the orderly display on the stand (where the fireman almost becomes a pumpkin himself), and up to the flames engulfing the roof.

I always assumed the picture was taken around Halloween, but the date is 4th December, 1978; the trees are not in stunning autumnal display, as they would be in October. These are winter trees – skeletal, bare. The grass is parched to brown. And that feels right – you wouldn’t want any other colours to compete with Sternfeld’s orange (like Titian’s blue). The orange of harvest, of “sweet cider” as the sign proclaims, of all-consuming fire. The whole thing is an allegory for what’s spent (be it passion, or summer, or a happy home), and what you’re left with is smashed pumpkins in a field, a desolate winter day, and a soon-to-be ruined house. The positive spin is the farm stand. I know the expression is “when you have lemons, make lemonade”, but maybe we could apply that to pumpkins and pie, or apples and cider. So I see the image as strangely hopeful; in the midst of winter, in the smoke of destruction, the fireman can still choose a prize pumpkin. There’s a glimmer of hope in the world …

This is in preparation for my online course, Poetry and the Visual, coming up in May: http://bit.ly/hh0z3s