Stuart Palley photographs fiery landscapes.
MIZZOU magazine asked photographer Stuart Palley, MA ’13, about his work:
Q: Your Kickstarter-funded photo project, Terra Flamma, documents the scorched landscapes of California’s wildfires. This isn’t a subject you just grab a camera and go photograph. What preparations did you make before beginning? Were there any access issues you had to deal with?
A: I’ve invested thousands of dollars in protective gear, from fire boots to goggles to fire shelters, to be at the same standard as a firefighter on the line. I’ve trained with the U.S. Forest Service and have a basic Wild and Fire Certification from auditing the class. It’s important to have some knowledge about wild land fire because knowing how the fire behaves and how weather influences it can save your life if something goes wrong.
During fire season, I keep all of my gear staged in my car ready to go. I have camping gear, a tent, cot, sleeping bag, chair, packed, too. I also have three days of rotating food and water in an electrified cooler that stays packed 24/7 at my door. If there’s a fire, I have to be prepared to drop everything and leave to photograph it.
For access, California has a law that if you are credentialed media you are allowed into disaster areas, which includes wildfires. For the most part, I am allowed through checkpoints with no problem. Sometimes getting past a checkpoint requires a friendly discussion or reminder of media access laws in California. I’ve been illegally denied access to a fire just once. When I am in an active fire area, the No. 1 priority is safety and staying out of the way of fire crews and engines. After that, I can make pictures.
Q: Did you ever feel like you were in great danger while covering the fires?
A: I’ve never felt as if I am in grave danger, but I have been in situations that have been “learning experiences” on how to be safe at fires. In spring of 2014, I audited some wild land fire training with the Forest Service that proved to be invaluable for better situational awareness while at fires.
On scene, I’m always watching the fire and how it’s behaving. Of the 10 standard firefighting orders, Nos. 2 and 3 say, “Know what your fire is doing at all times” and “Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.” I usually am on the flank of a fire to show the movement of the flames in the wind, or toward the foot of a fire standing in the back, keeping my radio on to hear about any possible wind shifts, blowups or runs the fire might make. The fire moves slower on the flanks compared to the head (the front). Because of the severe drought we’re in, erratic fire behavior is the norm on many of these fires, and Santa Ana winds don’t help at all.
Q: The commercial photography and video work you do during the day is very different from the dramatic fire scenes you capture at night. What drew you to documenting wildfires?
A: I’ve always enjoyed photographing at night, whether it be under stars or moonlight. It’s always been an escape from editorial or commercial work and the hustle and bustle of daily life as a small business owner. Photographing wildfires has also brought me to parts of California I never would have seen otherwise.
During the 2012 fire season, while interning at a Southern California newspaper, I went out to photograph numerous fires and realized there was potential to document the blazes at night. I was in awe at the destructive power of nature.
The Terra Flamma/Fires at Night project is a merger of two types of photography I enjoy: photojournalism and more art-oriented night photography. I think it’s possible to make journalism art and to have it tell a story in a documentary manner.
I also gravitate toward long exposures because I grew tired of the same rote media coverage of wildfires. Planes dropping retardant, finding the biggest walls of flame to zoom in on, seemed cliché. The long exposures show the fire’s behavior and how its influenced by the wind, terrain and other weather factors. You can see in some of the images how wind can drive a fire. The flames have a clear direction.
Q: You graduated from Southern Methodist University with a minor in photography, but it was not the focus of your education up to that point. What made you decide to study photojournalism at Mizzou?
A: I wanted to finish my majors in finance and history because I was so far along with them at SMU, but I had decided that I was a “photographer” partway through undergrad. I was interested, in the world of photojournalism, and if I was going to do a complete career change, wanted to find the best program in the country for it. MU fit the bill, and after a visit, I was sold.
During my visit, I sat in on classes and met professors, a personal touch that really showed me the program cared about its students and developing their storytelling abilities. I saw how it was a tight-knit program, and as a result, the quality of the alumni network was second to none for photojournalism in the U.S.
Q: What role, if any, does environmental photography play in the politically polarizing debate surrounding climate change?
A: I photograph the fires as I see them, and like to let viewers of the image decide how they want to interpret them. The pictures are there to educate the public and hopefully encourage them to research why these fires are getting worse, and make an independent informed decision.
Once you see these fires up close, it’s hard to deny evidence that is burning down forests right in front of you.
Update: This story has been updated with the correct location of the fire in the lead photograph.