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Seeing the Light, Feeling the Heat - An essay by Stephen Pyne

Author(s): Stephen Pyne
Year Published: 2020

FIRE PHOTOGRAPHY BEGAN EARLY. As soon as photographs could replace lithographs in magazines and newspapers, photos of firefights, the aftermath of bad burns, and occasionally even flame and smoke appeared. When Harper’s Weekly covered the 1871 and 1894 fires in Wisconsin and Minnesota, it relied on artists’ drawings. The 1903 and 1908 fires in New York and the Northwest had photographs. Their value spread from reportage to propaganda as those who campaigned for forest conservation recognized the value of such images for publicity. Some systematic use began when Gifford Pinchot institutionalized photography in the embryonic U.S. Forest Service. Its purpose was to inform, motivate, and dazzle. The agency could stay with a fire and its aftermath long after newspaper journalists rushed on to the next new thing to catch the public’s fancy. The Forest Service’s investment also shifted the human-interest focus from general citizens to firefighters. The best visual record of the American fire scene in the first half of the 20th century is that agency’s historic photo collection. Those early images defined the type of scenes, topics, composition, and message or emotion sought in the viewer. The photographers were informed by earlier drawings and paintings, but photography had its own attributes, and matters of basic design evolved to suit its capabilities. As in so many areas of wildland fire, the Great Fires of 1910 established the modern genre when, two weeks after the Big Blowup, the Forest Service sent R.H. McKay from the Missoula office to photograph the fires’ aftermath around Wallace, Idaho.

In those days photography was cumbersome and deliberate. McKay’s portfolio gave us wrecked landscapes, portraits of participants like Will Morris and Joe Halm, the lethal root cellar at the Beauchamp homestead, and the striking drama of the Nicholson adit where Ed Pulaski had held his men while the flames passed over. McKay didn’t invent fire photography—there are other images from even those fires, including smoke plumes, and other themes, notably the burning of towns like Wallace—but McKay’s suite of images seemed to imprint themselves onto the psyche of the Forest Service. This mattered because the agency became a consistent patron of fire photography.

Besides newspaper photos, those images were the primary means fire entered popular culture. Increasing numbers of Americans knew fire not from personal experience but through photographs. (Moreover, panoramas of blasted landscapes were of a piece with disaster photographs generally, and with the evolving photography of war.) Wildfire images merged with those of disasters and wars to shape what seemed a common genre. Those formative photos served as templates for much of what would follow.

Today’s fire photos still echo those early images. Early black and white photos were well suited for burned-over landscapes or posed portraiture. But no photographer in 1910, burdened with the cameras of the day, could hope to embed himself in the action as it unfolded. With the technology available, a select number of topics could be addressed in a select number of ways. In time cameras became more mobile, and photographic journalism more agile. Modern photographers could add color and action; images looked like reports from the front rather than documentaries after the flames had passed.

Contemporary technology has changed imagemaking and publishing. Today’s cameras allow for greater speed and details. They capture split-second movement, blasting the eye with swirling colors of flame and smoke. Photographers can enter the movement of the fire. With no limits on the number of photographs taken, after-the-fact curation replaces on-site composition, further encouraged by digital editing software. With the advent of drones and remote cameras, we don’t even need an on-the-scene photographer to record events. It’s an era of inexhaustible images. The role of the contemporary fire photographer is no longer simply to record but to interpret, investing a sensitivity that we call art.

One soaring visually striking flame image can look much like another. They become visual clichés, amenable to machine algorithms. The big and the garish are just images, so much visual data. Everyone carries cameras in their pockets; the culture is awash in fire imagery. Saturation soon segues into surfeit, which yields to boring. The truly striking and enduring of today’s photos are not those filled with the most gargantuan flames, but with an artful arranging of the fire, smoke plume or people in ways that enhance understanding and emotional connection. These images convey meaning through the aesthetic pleasure of seeing something thought familiar with fresh eyes. This is fire photography as fine art. (more)

Citation: Pyne S. 2018. Seeing the light, feeling the heat. Wildfire. Vol. 27 (2): p. 20-29.
Topic(s): Fire Communication & Education, Fire History
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 20873
Record updated: Mar 24, 2021