Flames and Forest
In Los Alamos, inspiration rose from the flames.
The Los Alamos Historical Museum is showing 44 images from 30 photographers capturing the beauty and agony of last summer’s Las Conchas Fire, the largest wildfire in state history.
Opening at 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, the photographs encompass wildlife and mountains, charred trees and helicopters, night skies and daylight licked by flames.
Reflecting part of the town’s history, the show features works by just three professional photographers. The rest are amateurs, museum specialist Judith Stauber said. All are from around northern New Mexico. The photos tell the fire’s story through powerful visual landscapes sharing themes of the battle against smoke and fire as well as the surreal impact of the fire on the quality of light, land, night sky, mountain skyline, wildlife and people.
Area photographers submitted about 60 images.
“We chose at least one from everybody that submitted,” Stauber said. “The quality of the images really surprised me.”
The photographs are primarily landscapes, with few shots of people, including firefighters.
“One of the themes was the very surreal landscapes,” Stauber said. “How the smoke affects the light – the exhibit’s up now and I was looking at it with my mouth open.”
Photographers captured moments of helicopters diving and disgorging from a multiplicity of angles. One produced a haunting scene of a young doe standing amid blackened trees.
Los Alamos resident Ken Hanson shot an aerial image of felled and charred trees resembling the microscopic texture and detail of bacteria or threads of finely woven fabric.
“The texture of that really struck me as a close-up,” Stauber said. “Just the pattern of that charred landscape was striking. You don’t really know what you’re looking at. It’s this beautiful weaving. When you realize what it is, it’s shocking.”
Santa Fean Amanda Jay captured an eerily purple sun at dusk.
“She sent me a note that said, ‘This is not color corrected’,” Stauber said. “There’s a lot of different pigments in the photographs –– like a pink sky, colors you’re not used to seeing.”
Los Alamos’ Salvador Zapien created daylight views of the Pajarito ski lift against a backdrop of blue skies and churning smoke.
“There’s this gorgeous blue sky and the ski lift, and then you see these ominous clouds in the background,” Stauber said.
Corby Wilson, also from Los Alamos, documented the fire fighters dropping a load of red fire retardant into the trees.
The museum organized a photography exhibit for 2000′s Cerro Grande fire, but those photographs focused on what was lost.
“Our archives also collected pictures of every home that was destroyed,” Stauber said. “This fire had a very different effect on the community than the last one. While still frightening, it was much less personally painful. People are moving on more quickly and seem more resigned to living with fire in the mountains and canyons.
“There are some powerful images in the room,” Stauber said. “I just stand there in awe.”
The exhibition will be up until Jan. 5.
If you go
WHAT: “Las Conchas Fire Community Photographs”
WHEN: Opening reception 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13. Through Jan. 5.
WHERE: Los Alamos Historical Museum, 1050 Bathtub Row, Los Alamos