March 5, 2014
I grew up in San Diego, and every year as summer turned into autumn the earth would set itself ablaze, sometimes with the help of negligent hunters or delinquent arsonists. The perennial wildfires were sometimes innocuous and sometimes tragic. On rare occasion, when the smell of burning brush wafts into San Francisco from Napa or the East Bay, I’m reminded of those days from my youth when schools were closed because of the poor air quality and my friends and I would roam the empty streets. I recall the 80-degree snowstorms of ash, and the smell of scorched chaparral. I do not think of the destroyed homes, the lost family heirlooms, or the grieving parents.
In the arid summer of 2008, wildfires covered the landscape of California—almost 3,000 in total, burning an area nearly the size of Delaware. Satellite images from that summer show smoke drifting over the Pacific from up and down the state. Youngsuk Suh, a photographer and professor at the University of California, Davis, hit the road to take a closer look. Suh ended up shooting dreamy photos that didn’t document the fires themselves, but life among wildfires. He continued shooting through the summer 2009 season, producing the series Wildfires. The somnambulistic haze that engulfs each scene reminds me of the freedom of youthful summer and that rare but exalted Southern Californian version of snow days. Most of these beautiful and gentle photos make me feel at ease. The photos make scant reference to the two dozen lives lost to wildfires those years, and many even obfuscate the ecological destruction.
In Rafting (2009), a lone red raft, dwarfed by surrounding trees, drifts down a river canyon. Smoke from a wildfire consumes the hills in the background. In another context, it might not be clear that a wildfire is nearby; we could be witnessing early-morning ocean fog winding its way upstream. The tenderness and ambiguity of the scene softens the blow; I can hardly hear the mobilization of California’s largest evacuation ever, even though I know it’s just beyond the ridge.
Photos like Rafting also speak to the fact that life goes on in wildfire country, and even leisure activities endure amid destruction. The proximity of pleasure and catastrophe is seen in many of the works in Wildfires, such as Bathers Under Bridge (2008). In this photo, dozens of bathers congregate on a rocky river bank under what appears to be a highway bridge. The smoke is less conspicuous in this photo, but the concrete bridge, which has a column running through the river, acts as a complementing invasive entity.
Covered Cars (2008) is a much more banal scene, without the bucolic beauty of Rafting. Two covered cars are parked in the driveway of a typical, red tile-roofed suburban home flanked by a sterile, manicured lawn. The air is dense and smoky, and, like in so many suburbs, there are few signs of human life. The ghostly, vacant scene is the most familiar to me in the series—by the looks of it, I could have grown up in this neighborhood—yet there is no accompanying sense of ease. In fact, the image makes me anxious, as this post-industrial Levittown aesthetic was cause for my own desertion of suburbia.
Suh says that contrary to the simplified nature-versus-culture dichotomy, he views nature as a “highly engineered and civilized institution.”1 I see Suh’s notion of nature in Covered Cars more than any other work in the series. While Rafting introduces a single element of “culture” within a “nature” scene, and Bathers Under Bridge represents the classical concept of a struggle between nature and civilization, Covered Cars embodies a more complex understanding of these mutually inclusive concepts. In an attempt to be neither urban nor rural, suburbs often concentrate life and property on the frontier between so-called nature and civilization. This means sprawling cities are built in the territory of wildfires, placing hapless human activity in close proximity to dry brush. (On their own, wildfires sometimes play an important ecological role, but they become disasters when they threaten human enterprises.) In this way, the wildfire is as much an engineered disaster as a natural one. Moreover, the majority of the summer 2008 wildfires were the result of lightning storms on June 20 of that year. California wildfires generally occur during the dry season and are exacerbated by drier than normal weather, such as the three-year drought from 2007 to 2009, and the record-shattering one we are currently experiencing. Even with all of the aspects of nature that humans have learned to manage—seismic engineering, reengineered rivers, wastewater recycling—we have yet to learn how to stop lightning or summon rain.
This conceptual complexity is echoed in the psychological and emotional response a viewer may have to Suh’s work. For me, the nostalgia that the photographs evoke is a precarious state, in which melancholy and pleasure oscillate and cohabitate. Facing Covered Cars, I am forced to confront multiple associations and memories that have all left a lasting impression: morally abhorrent urban design, childhood play, environmental destruction, and the captivating allure of smoke. Others will likely recall different experiences. By avoiding a didactic approach to real-life events, Suh’s photos allow viewers to freely entertain perceptions and feelings—creating an unbound space for the mind to wander and explore.
- “Wildfires,” accessed February 17, 2014, http://www.youngsuksuh.com/wildfires/wildfires.html