I returned last week from my second trip to Northern California to photograph the effects of the Camp Fire in Paradise.
As I start to make prints from the shoot I realize I was seeking to connect with the place in a slightly different manner than before. Partly documentation and partly an artist's response, the work reads more personal and selective.
An example is these, called Paradise Valley Trees:
This career artist doesn't always know why he's doing things. That sounds bizarre I know, but it is true. I discover things from the pictures I make. Yes, I made some conscious decisions here: convert the camera to 1:1, make the files in post into black and whites. So, I was working towards higher specificity in these pictures.
But there needs to be chance, discovery, unpredictability, accident, surprise, intuition in our work. It isn't all intellect and control.
These trees, serving as symbols for so much more, standing guard, doomed to be cut down and heading for the chipper, scarred and charred, killed by wind and fire on November 8, 2018.
Prints are 12 x 12 inches. I suggest seeing them in person: Neal's email
I arrived home a few days ago. I spent a week photographing in Paradise, CA, one year after the Camp Fire leveled the town on November 8, 2018.
The town is struggling to come back. Most of the demolition is finished, debris carted away, dead trees hauled off to the chipper. Some residents live in trailers on their property, waiting for utilities to be turned on, some are rebuilding and some will never return.
What's next for the images I made? Unlike most photographers these days, I will edit the files and make prints of the photographs, for this is how I work and have worked throughout my career. This will take a few weeks and will end in a portfolio of prints.
For my readers that are photographers, this trip was something of an experiment. I took only the Sony A7R MK IV with me. Every photo trip for the past 20 years or so has been with some model of Nikon. Why the change? Large file size with a smaller, lighter, and more responsive camera. With a 61 mp file, this is an unusual tool but it is proving to be really something when everything is dialed in correctly. I had a few glitches, misunderstandings and wrong settings, but I now know more about how to work with the camera and believe this can be a clear step up in image quality. Sony from now on? I haven't decided yet but I am leaning that way.
Next up? One more blog on photographs I made of the Kincade fire in Sonoma County, the last two days I was in California. This was a fire that burned 77,000 acres in late October 2019.
The last day I was in Paradise I took a new route down to the valley and in to Chico where I was staying. It was a mostly one lane road that wound down a canyon out of town.
Of course, much of it was scarred by the fire.
About halfway down, the road widened out to two lanes and the pavement smoothed out, perhaps due to a repair after a landslide. But it was no longer black macadam as it was covered with an orgy of spray painted graffiti, with tire tracks on top from cars peeling out, a place where teenagers hung out, expressing all kinds of pent up anger, frustration, joy, love and artistic ability too.
Very odd, this pavement canvas halfway down a canyon. Fantastic, really.
I get it. I know, graffiti destroys property but I find the sheer energy and exuberance of it very powerful. Also, it can be very beautiful.
After spending an hour or so photographing I realized that much of the whole road, several miles of it, served as a surface for taggers and graffiti artists.
Which then led me to this, with the disclaimer that I have no idea if any of it is true:
They meet at the spot on the canyon road on Saturday night late after the big game which they won 14-7. Beer and cheap wine, cigarettes, vapes and weed, going steady, hooking up or trying to, singles, spray paint, loud hip hop, headlights, peeling out and loud exhausts, convertibles, pickups and clapped out beaters. Youth, their place and their time, seeming like forever but ephemeral and fleeting, compounded and warped by the disorientation of the fire that November day in 2018, one of those they will never forget and that will define their lives until they die.
As I concluded my second trip to photograph in Paradise, California I learned many things; that the effects of the fire run deep, that lives were changed forever, that the scars from those few crazed hours in November 2018 will be carried by the people of the town the rest of their lives. 85 people were killed that day but Paradise will take years, decades really, to regain anything of a semblance of what it was before the fire. The possibility of another fire will hang over them as well.
So, I've been at it a few days, photographing the remains of a whole town: Paradise, California.Though I am now here a year after the Camp Fire, the damage is no less impressive for there is so much, the extent of the fire so massive, that I still find it difficult to comprehend.
I drove farther east the other day, up through Paradise to the small town of Magalia, closer to where the fire started. Here the fire was spotty, some areas untouched just as some are a total disaster.
Trees are a powerful indicator of what that day in November 2018 must have been like. 50 mph winds pushing the fire ahead, throwing embers into the air, flames being fanned at times moving horizontally, trees on fire and singed then blown out as the firestorm moves on.
As I drove farther east up the ridge into the Sierras, the country opened up and became less inhabited.
I used a long lens to reach across the valley so I could describe for you how this fire behaved, its random nature hitting a stand of trees, only to move on and leave large areas untouched.
Getting lunch yesterday at a Taco truck (there are no restaurants open yet in Paradise), I spoke with an older man who lives in Magalia. He and his wife had evacuated east the day of the fire, away from Paradise, as the route down the main street called Ridgeway was blocked and people were gridlocked in their cars not able to get clear. He told me he left that day and wasn't able to get back to his home for six weeks, much of that time having no idea if his home was still standing or not. His home was untouched.
I also spoke with Robert, who lives on his property in town in a trailer as his house no longer exists. The day I spoke with him he was hoping to get electricity as he's been without for the past year. He said he will rebuild as he has nowhere else to go. He was carrying a sidearm and explained that looters have been a problem.
Most of the empty lots are sprayed with a kind of cover, much like what we see when a construction site is reseeded with grass.
This below from Ridgeway on the way down to Chico.
I've got one more day here in Chico and will spend it finishing up in Paradise, retracing my steps to make sure I've got all I need. Then tomorrow I head to Healdsburg to see what the Sonoma area looks like, the site of the Kincade fire in October.
Stay tuned. Your comments always welcome: here
I thought that perhaps Paradise would be coming back to life ten months after I was here the first time, two months after the Camp Fire. It is one year since the firestorm destroyed the town. To be clear, there are signs of renewal, some buildings are going up, some residents have returned, but the sheer scale of the job at hand is so huge, the destruction so extensive that real progress will need to be measured in decades, not months.
This above is contrasted with scenes like these:
Many of the homes and buildings I photographed in January have been demolished. What remains are whole neighborhoods of empty lots. And places for sale:
This being California where it is hot in the summer, many homes had pools. In an odd irony, they often remain, owners perhaps hoping to rebuild:
I've only been here a day so my sense of the place now is through first impression but as I was photographing one of the swimming pools, almost empty, I could hear water running and found some bushes and a little bit of grass being watered by a fine spray only to realize that the sprinkler system was still working, turning on each morning to water the garden.
Paradise is really a huge wound, scarred and devastated in a matter of a few hours in November 2018.