Catching Fire – Part I

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Catching Fire – a beautiful yet dangerous subject, unpredictable and temperamental, photographing fire should always be approached with caution. When our editors at Nature Conservancy called asking us to shoot the ecosystem of wildfires and fire prevention in Arizona, we couldn’t say no. At that moment in February we had no idea the assignment would take us twice to the southwest, photographing all over the state, in blizzards and controlled burn fires. From loggers to scientists, firefighters to the homeowners they protect; we had the unique opportunity to meet and photograph people from all walks of life who have been affected by the climate of fire in which they live. It was truly a wild ride.

Since there’s so much to share in this story, we’re splitting up our coverage into two parts that represent our two trips to Arizona. Part I will cover our first trip in February of 2013 – a race against mother nature, a freak snowstorm, and few hikes through snow-covered mountains. As always, no matter the circumstance we did what we do best, we made photos. Keep reading to see more…

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Initially our shoot was planned for one trip to Arizona. We’d arranged to photograph a homeowner who’d been affected by forest fire and forest thinning, a team of loggers who helps to clear the forest and prevent fires, and two ecologists who study both the forest and the fires that burn through it.

We began the week in Phoenix, photographing Gary Fanning, a homeowner who’s summer cabin had been saved from devastating 2011 Wallow fire due to the efforts of forest thinning.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Let’s be honest here. After flying out from the frigid east coast, we were shooting in Phoenix AZ in February, it was warm and sunny and Gary Fanning was a great photo subject. All things considered it was an excellent start to a great week of shooting. That was until we checked the upcoming weather.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Snow – and lots of it. Departing Phoenix, we headed east into the White Mountains of Arizona towards the small town of Springerville where we were scheduled to meet the Walker brothers, 5th generation loggers who are working to keep the forest thinned and help prevent future fires.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Faced with a much colder reality than we’d hoped for, Chris and I made the most of the snow. Anytime you bring inclement weather into an outdoor photo-shoot, things get interesting, and when you’re out in the forest with Octabanks, power packs, and generators, you need to get creative. If rain is the worst for lighting equipment, snow isn’t far behind. Working in conditions like this mean every move has to be careful or you risk damaging your gear.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Dale and Rick Walker were very generous subjects – willing to not only pose for our photos but also provide us with an in-depth education on the forest and the practices of how they make a living responsibly logging and thinning the forests.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Later we opted to head inside and warm up for a few shots. Thankfully the Walker brothers had a few pieces of heavy machinery in a garage nearby where we setup a few portraits. For these shots we kept our setup simple, using one gridded octabank to keep our light sharp and focused on our subjects and their heavy duty equipment.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

After two very cold days in Springerville, we packed up the truck and drove northwest to Flagstaff, the location for our next set of portraits. At almost 7,000 feet above sea level we knew that there would be no shortage of winter here either. Thick socks, snow boots and winter coats ready, we set out to make more pictures.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Our first subject in Flagstaff was Mary Lata, a Fire Ecologist for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. For lack of a better explanation, Mary was our fire-woman. She gets as close as you can to the flames, researching fire and its impact on the enviorment which it exists in.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

For our shoot with Mary, we wanted flames – and lots of them. Short of setting anything ablaze ourselves, we were willing and able to travel anywhere we could to get portraits with some fire. This is when we were finally at odds with Mother Nature.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

The snowstorm had prevented any large scale burning activity and left us with only piles of smoldering ash, hardly the blaze we were looking for. Despite the odds, we still made a series of portraits with Mary, capturing her in the forest environment she diligently works to protect.

cc2013010 - Arizona Fire and Forestry Portraits photographed for

The last person we had the opportunity to meet and photograph was Ed Smith, a forest ecologist working for The Nature Conservancy. Essential to the ecoystem of fire prevention, Ed works to connect all parties involved for the greater health of the land and those who live within. For his portrait, we knew that we couldn’t just have a photo in his office – we needed something greater; a backdrop that gave a greater context to his efforts.

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This location took us deep into the woods near Flagstaff – miles of muddy, rutted service roads led to a logging site where we setup shots amongst a very active crew of loggers. Despite the multi-ton equipment sawing, dragging, and moving entire trees through our shoot, no photographers or photo gear was harmed in making these photos.

chris crisman nature conservancy arizona forest fire

Although quite chilled, we left Arizona with a deeper understanding of the forest ecosystem, and a deep appreciation for all of those working to protect the environment, and those who live within it. After a week of shooting, we packed our bags and hopped a flight back to Philadelphia – unaware of the adventure still ahead.

Want to read more? Read the story and explore exclusive interactive features on Nature Conservancy magazine’s digital edition app for the iPad (The iPad edition includes an audio interview with Chris on what it was like shooting in the snow and the fire). Also make sure to take a look at the full story on Nature Conservancy’s website.

Questions? Comments? Let us know below or @crismanphoto and /crismanphoto. Check back next week for part II when Chris goes into the fire itself…

7 replies to “Catching Fire – Part I”

  1. Great stuff! It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the White Mountains. Brings back memories.

    I love the cover!! Terrific image! (I seem to say that a lot on this Blog) 🙂

  2. great photos, great post. how you got that cover photo is amazing. love your light — it’s so WHITE and clean… dumb tech question: you must rent generators wherever you go, i would guess?

    thanks, dudes.

  3. Hey Jeff, thank you for the kind words. You are correct, we rent generators wherever we travel (it’d be tough to fly them out). Whenever we can, we try to rent from local film or photo houses but if that doesn’t pan out there is almost always Home Depot. Cheers.

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