Burning at a rate of an acre per second, fire ripped through the Jemez Mountains in the middle of the summer of 2011. At the time, it was largest fire in the state’s history. It burned over 150,000 acres and threatened to burn down Los Alamos National Labs. When it was over, two photographers, a husband (Philip Metcalf) and wife (Patricia Galagan) team walked into what was once a forest to tell the story of what happened and what will happen next.
The result of that seven-year effort is the exhibit and book Fire Ghosts on display now at Photo-eye Bookstore’s Project Space in Santa Fe. A project of local importance with global significance Fire Ghosts looks into the future of the Pyrocene, a term given to the time when our burning of fossil fuels commands the direction of the planet. By putting carbon into the atmosphere, we change the climate and thus the frequency and intensity of forest fires. We burned. It burned. More will burn.
Finding beauty in death is a cornerstone of artistic creation in New Mexico. These burnt, blackned trees left in the Jemez have a stark elegance against monochrome skies. The namesake piece of the exhibit, “Fire Ghosts” by Philip Metcalf, illustrates the abstraction of the Pyrocene as it devolves into a Wyethesque landscape of hashmarks and textures modified by man, loosely grounded in the reality that this place was burned. It takes a moment to remember that this is a photograph, not a drawing. This is what remains of hills that were violently and uncontrollably on fire. You can go there today and it still looks spooky, as you would expect of anyplace so full of the dead.
We can name movements, epochs and eras, but the term “Pyrocene” is just another way to come to terms with our actions. Fire Ghosts is an attempt to do the same thing, trying to show others what the photographers saw in the aftermath of the Las Conchas fire. A cautionary tale, perhaps, but more importantly it is the prerogative of New Mexican artists to stand witness to our lands and to confront the ghosts that inhabit the hills. If they don’t, who will?