Art, Wildfire, and the End of Nature in the New West
by Douglas McCulloh
Facing Fire catalogue published by the Inlandia Institute
130 pages, 132 illustrations, complete exhibition checklist
Fire as omen and elemental force, as metaphor and searing personal experience—these are the subjects Douglas McCulloh explores in Facing Fire: Art, Wildfire, and the End of Nature in the New West.
California’s diverse ecologies are fire-prone, fire-adapted, even fire-dependent. In the past two decades, however, West Coast wildfires have exploded in scale and severity. There is a powerful consensus that we have entered a new era—nature unbalanced, the end of the stable world. Douglas McCulloh has assembled the work of 16 artists who bring us incendiary images from active fire lines and psychic burn zones.
These artists are like poets who enter a burning building and bring back reports of majesty, fear, and flame. In 2008, Anna Mayer placed a dozen unfired ceramic sculptures into valleys and hillsides along the Malibu coastline. She intended them to be fired by wildfire. A decade later, the Woolsey Fire burned 96,000 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people—and fired six of Mayer’s sculptural pieces.
Norma I. Quintana, meanwhile, builds a photographic memorial to her house and studio consumed by Napa’s 2017 Atlas Peak firestorm. She registers her loss by documenting seventy charred objects sifted from the powdery ash—charcoal husks of cameras bodies, slumped remnants of rings, a bisque doll hand. In the end, though, what Quintana chronicles is spirit, resilience, and the abiding persistence of memory.
In addition to artists obsessed with the elemental, the book features work by California’s top acknowledged fire photography specialists. Pulitzer Prize nominee Noah Berger’s images read like a lyrical catalogue of disasters: Camp Fire, Kincade Fire, Carr Fire, Pawnee Fire, Delta Fire, Ferguson Fire, Mendocino Complex Fire, Holiday Fire—more stunning for the fact that the work comprises only some of his output since 2018. With his colleagues Josh Edelson, winner of the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism, and Justin Sullivan, San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographer of the Year, and Stuart Palley, these fire photographers bring us the finest visual reports from the front lines of wildfire.
Together the 16 artists face fire, sift its aftermath, and struggle with its implications. Throughout is the uneasy sense that wildfire is a stand-in, a site of displacement for more immaterial fears, for the amorphous anxieties of the age.
This book is published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name held at UCR ARTS: California Museum of Photography.
Artists are: Noah Berger, Kevin Cooley, Josh Edelson, Samantha Fields, Jeff Frost, Luther Gerlach, Christian Houge, Richard Hutter, Christoph Kapeller, Benoit Malphettes, Anna Mayer, Cody Norris, Stuart Palley, Norma I. Quintana, Justin Sullivan, and Joan Wulf.