An essay by Stephen Pyne
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.
Meaning can also come from the theme conveyed. Here the subject gets stickier. For 50 years after 1910, led by the U.S. Forest Service, the country tried to remove fire from the landscape. The traditional tropes—fire as battlefield, fire as disaster—fit this message like a hand on a pulaski. The strategy, however, took out good fires as well as bad.
Then came a revolution in thinking, which led to policy reforms. For the past 50 years we have tried to reinstate good fire, with mixed results. It’s a much trickier proposition to convey a message of pluralism than to advance a single argument. Smokey Bear could boldly declare that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” and Smokey as propaganda art flourished in popular consciousness. (It’s useful to remember Smokey’s World War II origins as part of the Wartime Ad Council.) It’s harder to convey a message that says some fires are good and some bad and to rally art to embed that notion in the culture. It’s much easier to continue the old tropes, now more dramatic and visually spectacular than ever thanks to digital technology. Fire suppression remains the default setting, with fire photography working in support of that mission.
Visual media—both motion and still images—remain the primary way the American public understands fire. Fire photography has excelled in delivering the story of the firefight. It has not found an equivalent way to deliver the modern story of fire’s varied management. The fault doesn’t lie with the visuals so much as the story they must narrate. The modern desire to manage fire has an operating thesis; it doesn’t yet have a working narrative agreeable to the general public. It’s hard for photographers to illustrate a story that remains inchoate, and perhaps harder to devise images that can substitute for story. Still, photography has in the past helped inform our guiding narrative. It could do so again.
Our great philosopher of Pragmatism, William James, got it right when he argued in “What Makes a Life Significant” that what we want is the visible sign of struggle. The higher the stakes, the more desperate the battle, the greater the viewer’s engagement. A firefight can stand as a dictionary definition of such a contest. Our current relationship with fire is more fraught and complex, and it lacks the visual clarity of the firefight, which is to say, a moral melodrama. We have a photographic chronicle, and a remarkable family album of the fire community, as combatants. What we need is the message of being co-inhabitants; a sense of fire as a way of life. A war on fire can only end in defeat. A shared journey with fire can light our way into the future.
THE WILDLAND FIRE SCENE TODAY is full of paradoxes. It has mixed landscapes, where wild and urban mingle promiscuously. It has mixed wildfires, in which suppression and prescribed burning can co-exist even on the same fire. Today’s wildland fires are fusing what had been separate realms, and for photography, separate genres.
But that is true for the West generally. Landscape photographers have eliminated borders that once separated old scenes and the images appropriate to them. They put powerlines and human artifacts into wilderness panoramas. They treat trailer courts and waste dumps with the aesthetic sensibility previously reserved for pristine parklands. They make the ordinary exotic, and the fabulous banal. They are overlaying current scenes with pastiches of past images. This is also where fire photography as art—as imagery beyond simple reportage—may likely go. It will be interesting to see what genre paradoxes might result.
Fire is a supremely sensuous phenomenon, and primarily a visual one. It does not merely illuminate: it radiates. Photography can allow us to see that blasting light and in recent developments to almost feel the heat. It remains the primary bond between the American fire subculture and American society at large. How photography might use its aesthetic prowess to not only record today’s fires, but to speak to contemporary ideas and policy is the challenge for the years to come. In that, once again, fire photography can stand for the American fire community overall.
Essayist STEPHEN PYNE is a Regents professor at Arizona State University and the author of 30 books, 21 of them dealing with fire. He’s twice held NEH fellowships, twice been a fellow to the National Humanities Center, has received a MacArthur Fellowship, and been awarded the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch award for body-of-work contribution to American letters.