Joel Sternfeld is known for his large-format photographs of America in the early 1980s. Sternfeld traveled throughout the country extensively, capturing the beauty of the American landscape but also producing subtle and ironic commentary on the political issues of the time. The photograph from Coeburn, included in his iconic book American Prospects, possesses all the signature qualities of its maker. It is perfectly composed and pleasing to the eye, yet its subject matter encourages the viewer to reflect on larger issues relating to the photographer’s native country.
We are first struck by the image’s beautifully balanced colors and the strong diagonal line formed by the coal train. The composition is clearly divided into foreground, middle ground, and background. Our eyes first land on the largest train car in the bottom left of the picture. Our attention gravitates towards the large dark mass of coal and the cold metallic frame of the freight car. From there our eyes are “dragged” along the train track to the top right edge of the picture, floating over a never ending river of coal, only to come to rest on the slope of a lush green hill. Next we are pulled back to the center of the picture, where we pause in an oasis of pink. Those are blossoming trees, and their color complements the browns and greens of the rest of the picture in what can only be described as absolute color perfection. Once the beauty of the blossoming forests is no longer able to hold our attention, we climb down the hill into a small town at its foot. We walk through the scattered buildings, run out on a small farm field, and end up back at the starting point, where we notice a dead tree with limbs removed near the train track. Our eyes keep travelling in this loop around the photograph, as if trapped. The pattern is broken only when we zoom in on one of the many details that Sternfeld’s 8×10 camera captured.
The high level of detail allows us to step into Coeburn in 1981. We see a man standing outside one of the houses. Why is he just standing there? Sunlight catches a car parked between two sheds. We feel an urge to sit on a bench on the side of the field. A thin band of trees separates us from another farm. If we look closely among the trees, we find an old car left to rust away and grow into the land. Laundry drowned in the sunlight as it hangs to dry, a sign of less than ideal economic conditions. We also notice the velvety texture of the coal.
The trains cut through the landscape and disrupt what otherwise could be an idyllic rural scene. Where is this “black gold” going? Who benefits? Sternfeld seems to be giving us some clues. The ominous appearance of the dead tree anchored at the tail end of one of the trains cannot be a coincidence. Destruction comes with the mining industry. The man outside the house becomes a witness to this process. His uncertain posture makes him seem vulnerable. His tiny size relative to the giant trains illustrates his insignificance within the economic system of the industrialists and his country’s capitalist government. Thoughtful viewers are faced with their own relationship to this scene. Most of us are in one way or another contributing to the forces powering those trains. Sternfeld’s beautiful photograph captures a place and people that we are connected to through our daily choices.
—Jan Cieslikiewicz, ICP GS 2013