May 2015

Fire Season: An Exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art

Timed to coincide with New Mexico’s fire season, an exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe, features work by five photographers who explore the dynamic element of fire. Subjects include controlled burns and active wildfires, as well as their aftermath of devastation and renewal. The exhibition opens May 1 at 5:30 p.m., with a free public reception, and runs through July 26. In honor of National Wildfire Preparedness weekend, the museum extends a special welcome to firefighters and their families on May 3. At 2 p.m., Dr. Alexander Evans, Research Director at the Forest Guild, will present a free lecture, Fire and Communities: Images and Science.

Forests are often referred to as the lungs of the planet, functioning by absorbing carbon dioxide while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere—the opposite of people. New Mexico’s abundant forests and trees are thus a crucial natural resource and have long defined its distinctive and beloved landscape. Wildfires are a natural part of regulating those ecosystems but pose a threat to human habitations, especially the uncharacteristically severe fires of recent years. Featured in the show are two Santa Feans who have photographed extensively in the Jémez Mountains in the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire, which burned more than 150,000 acres in 2011. Patricia Galagan and Philip Metcalf approached the site as both evidence of an unprecedented local fire and as an extraordinary visual terrain, returning for numerous visits in 2012 and 2013. Working in black-and-white with infrared film, Metcalf’s series, Fire Ghosts, captures the skeletal remains of a once-verdant forest—stark vistas of blackened old-growth trees and ashen ground. In Fire Frazzle, we see a portrait of a towering individual tree destroyed by fire. Despite the sobering subject matter, Metcalf finds unexpected beauty in the burned trees. Galagan’s series, The Green Fuse, also addresses the inescapable destruction of the fire-ravaged landscape but emphasizes fire’s role in the regeneration of the forest ecosystem. Pieces in the show range from Tiny River of Green, in which the artist highlights a small area of regrowth among the dead trees, to August’s Garden, in which a massive fallen trunk is cradled in the grasses and wildflowers nourished by the burn. The images, Galagan writes, “remind us that the most essential task of a forest in our hotter, drier world is to survive.”

Jane Fulton Alt’s series, The Burn, began in an eventful year in which her first grandchild was born, her sister was diagnosed with cancer, and she witnessed a controlled prairie fire in the area bordering Chicago. Struck by the expressive possibilities of the fire at this turbulent time in her life, Alt spent the next six years working amidst the heat and smoke of controlled burns in Lake Forest, Illinois, attempting to capture “the ephemeral moment when life and death are not opposed but are harmonized as a single process…” In Burn No.93 and Burn No. 55, she uses the subtleties of shifting smoke as visual manifestations of her own disorientation, lucidity, and emotional fluidity, using the external landscapes to reflect inner states.

Larry Schwarm, a native of Kansas, has been photographing prairie fires in vivid color for several decades. Printed large and often appearing as fields of intense color, Schwarm’s pictures convey the scale and force of prairie fires, along with their terrible beauty. The most successful images, he says, “look the way it felt to be there,” evoking the intense sight, smell, temperature and sound of a wildfire. His image, Prairie Fire Near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, vividly suggests the velocity, heat and light of a conflagration sweeping across the plains, while Smoke Passage, Chase County, Kansas, shows a towering expanse of smoke ascending apocalyptically into the sky, illuminated by the red glow of fire.

Finally, Santa Fe landscape photographer Greg MacGregor sums up in one image the challenges of having human-built environments adjacent to forested areas. His black-and-white view of New Mexico’s Rail Runner train shows it stopped at the Santa Fe Depot with a colossal column of roiling smoke rising behind, from the Tres Lagunas fire of 2013. The photograph is a reminder of nature’s power and its indifference to where we build our houses, suggesting that we need to continue working to adapt ourselves to the ongoing presence of fire in our lives.

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