Photographer captures mystery of prairie fire
“Burn No. 20” | Courtesy of Jane Fulton Alt
First Floor Gallery of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
Through Nov. 6. Admission is free.
Call (847) 448-8260 or visit www.cityofevanston.org/arts. For an overview of Alt’s photographic work, visit www.janefultonalt.com
Updated: October 24, 2012 10:42AM
Jane Fulton Alt has been taking pictures of the annual controlled prairie burns in Lake Forest for the last five years.
Now the internationally celebrated photographer has accumulated a collection of those photos entitled “The Burn,” which will be on display through Nov. 6 in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Center.
Alt, who grew up Glencoe and graduated from New Trier High School in 1969 before moving to Evanston, made a career of clinical social work while exploring various artistic outlets.
She switched from fiber-arts and quilting to photography nearly 20 years ago because she felt it had more potential for self-expression. Apparently so, since she has exhibited work all over the world, including Russia, China, Japan, Canada and much of Europe, and her photos are in permanent collections at the Smithsonian, the Palmquist Archives at Yale and the New Orleans Museum of Art, among others.
Pioneer caught up with Alt for a chat about photography as a tool for personal exploration, how to make an image sing and the way contolled burns simultaneously destroy and rejuvenate.
PIONEER: What appeals to you about photography as a medium?
JANE FULTON ALT: I felt that I could use the camera to express what was going on inside of me more easily than with the fiber-art and quilting I had been doing before. I guess I realized there was a lot more potential for me with the camera.
I don’t really think of myself as a photographer. I use photography to try and understand issues about living. It’s really been a tool for me personally.
I’ve been interested in the same issues from the very beginning. I’ve always gotten into anyplace I could where I could try to understand death and dying. I’ve documented home births and I’ve been to slaughterhouses and autopsies. . . I’m interested in the essentials about how we come in and how we go out.
Q: So, you explore these issues by taking a close look at them through the camera?
JFA: Yes. It helps that the camera gives me permission and access to things I might not have seen, otherwise.
Of course, I’ve also been concerned or disturbed about other, more specific issues. I took photos after Katrina in New Orleans because I had gone down to the Ninth Ward as a social worker — but I felt more needed to be done. There are no people in those pictures, because people were returning to their homes for the first time and I really wasn’t comfortable trying to capture all the cathartic stories I’d been hearing. I kind of felt like a walking container for all their grief and sadness and anger.
I took my oil spill photos (Because photographers were being kept away from the 2010 spill site, Alt simulated her photographs on Lake Michigan beaches, which created controversy when they went viral around the world, ed.) because I wanted to share my concern about the BP oil spill.
The “Burn” photos happened for a couple of reasons. I was doing a residency at Ragdale five years ago and I had the chance to observe controlled burns of the prairie lands up there. I was fascinated by them because they are so beautiful, yet so destructive. Yet, they were constructive, also, because they cleared the land and made way for new growth. I also felt drawn to them because I started shooting the same day, almost the same hour, that my sister started chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer — a treatment with the same sort of destructive/regenerative nature. Every time I looked through the viewfinder, I thought about what was happening to her.
Q: Do you alter your photos in the darkroom? Or digitally?
JFA: Oh yeah. With each photo, whether you’re working in a wet or dry darkroom, you have to try to figure out how to make the image sing. Some are cropped, some are tinted. In the case of the “Burn” photos, the fire is sweeping so fast that you have to shoot really quickly and I can’t always see what’s going on. So, it’s snap, snap, snap and then study at the pictures when you get back. A lot of work goes into figuring out where the magic is — or if there is any in the first place. I took so many pictures during the burns and most of them didn’t mean anything to me when I looked at them later. For me there has to be some sort of metaphor or magic to the image for me to want to work on it and print it.
When I was looking through the burn photos, I was searching for clarity and a sort of misty quality. The smoke that obscures and reveals. That’s what interests me the most, as well as how the sun is coming through, if it is.
Q: Do you have any more favorite collections?
JFA: Well, “Mourning Light,” which came out of a visit to Auschwitz. I hadn’t planned on going there, but I was invited to exhibit in Poland, and I think you can’t go to Poland without going to Auschwitz. After being there for a number of hours, I felt desperately that I had to find some kind of light in that very, very dark place. Even if it was a tiny sliver of light coming through the walls of the gas chamber.