Scorched earth

Sketches in Char­coal & Fire by Rumi Ves­seli­nova



the woodlands of the South­west will likely be re­duced to weeds and shrubs. And sci­en­tists worry that the rest of the planet may see sim­i­lar ef­fects.” So be­gins Jeff Ti­etz’s Rolling Stone ar­ti­cle “The Fate of Trees: How Cli­mate Change May Al­ter Forests World­wide,” pub­lished in March. Ti­etz cites the re­search of Park Wil­liams, a post­doc­toral stu­dent at Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory. The end of the new cen­tury may seem a long way off, but ac­cord­ing to Wil­liams, as early as 2050, a com­bi­na­tion of drought and ex­ces­sive heat due to cli­mate change could spell dis­as­ter for South­west conifers, re­sult­ing in a mas­sive die-off.

“There have al­ways been fires, but things are get­ting more se­ri­ous,” Bulgaria-born pho­tog­ra­pher Rumi Ves­seli­nova told Pasatiempo. Ves­seli­nova’s ex­hibit Sketches in Char­coal & Fire doc­u­ments 2011’s Las Con­chas fire and its lin­ger­ing ef­fects. The show, which opens at Cate­nary Art Gallery on Fri­day, July 24, looks at the al­tered land­scaped rav­aged by the fire, with im­ages shot over the course of four years. “The bal­ance is def­i­nitely off,” said Ves­seli­nova, who runs Cate­nary. “Grasses will sur­vive bet­ter, I think. But trees — Wil­liams’ con­clu­sions are not op­ti­mistic at all,” she said, re­fer­ring to Ti­etz’s ar­ti­cle.

Ves­seli­nova’s im­ages cap­ture the dev­as­ta­tion of the fire that threat­ened the town­ship of Los Alamos, as well as the na­tional lab, burn­ing more than 150,000 acres to be­come, at the time, the largest wild­fire in state history. As a pho­tog­ra­pher, her in­ter­est was in the aes­thetic beauty of its ef­fects. The fire, which be­gan in late June and was not fully con­tained un­til the first week of Au­gust, sent smoke bil­low­ing into the sky and sent ash drift­ing over Santa Fe. While the fire raged, the colos­sal plumes of smoke shrouded the sun, af­fect­ing the qual­ity of light and fill­ing the sky with an oth­er­worldly com­bi­na­tion of hues. For on­look­ers, it was a spec­ta­cle. “The look of the sun, the moon, and the sky was so dif­fer­ent,” Ves­seli­nova said. “It’s scary be­cause you know this is com­ing from a dan­ger­ous thing, a blaz­ing inferno, but at the same time, vis­ually, it’s so com­pelling. It’s like noth­ing I’ve seen be­fore.”

Ves­seli­nova did not in­tend on mak­ing a body of work on the Las Con­chas fire when she be­gan, but she came back to the sub­ject time af­ter time, and the re­sults are two sep­a­rate but re­lated se­ries: one in color (Sketches in Fire), deal­ing with a two-week pe­riod shot while the fire still raged, and the other (Sketches in Char­coal), shot pre­dom­i­nately in black and white save for a few im­ages bear­ing traces of de­sat­u­rated color. “In terms of get­ting the pic­tures, I was never re­ally close to the fire,” she said. “My record is of things as you could see them from Santa Fe.”

The ver­ti­cal trees in the black-and-white pho­to­graphs are bereft of branches and dark­ened by the fire. They in­ter­sect with the long shad­ows cast by the trees; the ef­fect re­sem­bles the crosshatch­ing tech­nique artists some­times use in draw­ing. “The shad­ows of the trees I thought were vis­ually so strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from my other land­scapes. I’ve done these large-scale South­west land­scapes for years now. This had a com­pletely dif­fer­ent qual­ity. Some were taken in the win­ter. The snow makes the con­trasts even more dra­matic, I would say.”

The pho­to­graphs also doc­u­ment the slow re­ju­ve­na­tion of the for­est. A year af­ter the fire, patches of new growth ap­peared, as can be seen in the print Burnt For­est 3, but the bright green veg­e­ta­tion is nearly swal­lowed by the sur­round­ing ter­rain of black­ened, skele­tal trees. “It was less than a year, ac­tu­ally. These were taken in May 2012. You will see some new growth, es­pe­cially on the ground. It starts from the ground up, but the trees will never re­cover. There are flow­ers some­times and then, of course, some shrub­bery and bushes, but the burned trees are dead.”

Im­ages that cap­ture the sky and dis­tant moun­tains, shot while the fire still burned, re­veal a spec­trum of color only pos­si­ble be­cause of the smoke in the at­mos­phere. In the pho­to­graph Smoke and Kite, a kite drifts high in the sky, sil­hou­et­ted by the glow of a pink sun, with no in­di­ca­tion that the stun­ning sunset is the re­sult of a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter hap­pen­ing nearby. Another skyscape, Las Con­chas Fire Sunrise, shows dawn break­ing through a canopy of smoke above the moun­tains, il­lu­mi­nat­ing an apoc­a­lyp­tic scene. “From a pho­to­graphic point of view, dan­ger is quite spec­tac­u­lar. We all know that the rea­son for these beau­ti­ful sun­sets is pol­lu­tion, fire, or other rea­sons that are not so pretty, but the vis­ual ef­fect is amaz­ing.”

At 7 p.m. on Tues­day, July 28, Ves­seli­nova dis­cusses her work at the Los Alamos Na­ture Cen­ter (2600 Canyon Road, Los Alamos, 505-662-0460), fol­lowed by a talk by ecol­o­gist Terry Foxx on con­di­tions that lead to fire dev­as­ta­tion and re­cov­ery from the Las Con­chas Fire. The event, “Art, Wind, and Fire,” is free to the public.

Rumi Ves­seli­nova, above: Edge; left, Jaw (de­tail); both 2012 archival pig­ment prints

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