Slow Burn: Young Suh’s Wildfires

New Takes

Slow Burn: Young Suh’s Wildfires

By tamara suarez porras January 22, 2019

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

The sky turned orange. It seemed like sunset began at sunrise and lasted all day. It was late fall but seemed like late summer. The landscape appeared desaturated under a veil of haze. It seemed safe to stare directly into the sun. This orange was that of dystopian landscapes in films and television, a light filtered through ash and smoke. It seemed that life in California would become synonymous with this surreally apocalyptic orange.

As the California fire season began, Wildfires, a series of photographs by Young Suh, was on view in the Main Gallery of the San Francisco Arts Commission. It was presented in alignment with the Global Climate Action Summit, alongside other local exhibitions addressing climate change. The Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, began on November 8, 2018—much later than the fire season was expected to last. As if they were flashes from a present memory, Suh’s photographs inside the galleries evoked the eerie streets outside and a horrifying reality just miles to the north.

Young Suh. Covered Cars, 2008; archival pigment print on rag paper; 36 x 46 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The works in Wildfires were photographed between 2008 and 2013. Suh tracked active wildfires online and through news reports, photographing not the blazes themselves but rather the surrounding landscapes. Suh also worked with local firefighters and forest-management agencies to gain access to controlled burn sites. These agencies attempt to temper the severity of future wildfires through preset burns that exhaust the available fuel: brush, leaves, and branches left behind from winter and the dry season.

Suh’s photographs, viewed in 2018, have become portentous. The magnitude and strength of wildfires stoked by a warming, parched climate cannot be contained. The 2007 and 2008 fire seasons in California saw over 1.5 million acres of land burned each year, more than any other year since 1987. Fifteen of the most destructive fires and ten of the twenty deadliest in California history have occurred within the twenty-first century. Governor Jerry Brown has repeatedly declared this state of wildfire “the new normal.”

News photographs and videos from the firelines of the Camp Fire showed massive blazes engulfing the skeletal remains of homes, firefighters silhouetted against white-hot plumes, and the ashen evidence of loss. The thundering roar of the inferno can almost be heard through such images made in the line of fire, which call for immediate attention and action. Suh’s work and process are not photojournalism, however. Instead of utilizing the portability of a digital camera, Suh often works with a large-format film camera and tripod. He works well away from a wildfire or in a controlled burn. He does not picture wildfire as a harrowing blaze, instead focusing on its ancillary markers: smoke, haze, and embers. This method of slowed observation and fewer exposures made from a distance instead lends itself to images that are eerily quiet and contemplative. Wildfire is paradoxically not seen, yet undeniably present.

Suh’s photographs may not erupt with firestorms, but they do burn. They push against a news cycle that must turn its lens to the next tragedy; they insist that wildfires are not over when a destructive spectacle has been contained. Suh’s photographs underscore how closely Northern Californians coexist with the specter of wildfire. The landscapes in his work are both calm and in crisis. His images evoke a cognitive dissonance that recreation—boating, camping, swimming—easily happens downwind from a nearby wildfire, that life continues alongside a proximate tragedy. In Bather at Sunset (2009), a swimmer enters a shallow pool of water, reminiscent of idyllic style of Hudson River School painting, which Suh cites as influential to his work. Indeed, the photograph’s color palette and softness do recall such works, with their warm pinks and oranges as gradients in softly majestic sunsets behind lush, muted landscapes. With a different project title, these photographs could too be considered idyllic. This is what continues to draw the viewer: that within tragedy and destruction can exist something surreally attractive, a scene so beautiful and so strange that it calls to be inhabited and photographed.

It is unnerving that photographs alluding to destruction can also be visually seductive. These landscapes, away from chaos, can appear as if there is little wrong in them. Conversation (2009) shows an arid patch of land with yellowed, craggy trees and the faint outlines of what could have been a burn; in the near distance, a Costco store complex sits untouched. Covered Cars (2008) could be considered an appealing suburban American landscape, with the two-car garage, the manicured verdant lawn, and the spotless stucco. Then a viewer takes in the reddish haze in the smoky sky emanating from behind the trees, the haze that made it seem safe to stare directly into the white orb of the sun last fall. The sun in Suh’s photographs is this same ethereal and ghostly form. In Bather at Sunset (2009), Sunset I (2008), and Sunset II (2009), the sun is almost unrecognizable as something other than a spot on the negative; it is another strange interruption in the landscape that indicates something is not right, even if the immediate vista seems ordinary.

Young Suh. Bather at Sunset, 2009; archival pigment print on rag paper; 36 x 47 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Declaring this reality “a new normal” can be, as Octavia Butler wrote in her science-fiction novel Parable of the Sower, “like ignoring a fire in the living room because we’re all in the kitchen."These signs of fire must instead be reminders that the natural world is not immune to human negligence nor will an environment in crisis remain habitable. Governor Brown revised his normalization phrasing in November, instead terming these fire conditions “the new abnormal.” The juxtapositions within Wildfires, their weaving of ordinary life with nearby destruction, must similarly remain disconcerting and strange. They say to viewers: Do not let this unsettling dichotomy settle. Do not accept this as the new normal. The scope of climate change is massive, but its impacts are tangible and local; though not yet felt in every backyard, it is happening. These photographs may not proffer solutions, but they hold space for the catalytic power of dialogue that leads to action. Stalling the forces of climate change first requires the refusal to ignore it and to normalize seemingly faraway aberrations. Photographs like Suh’s that exist outside of the news cycle, that are present when fires are not raging through the state, emphasize that the felt effects of climate change may only be a few miles away and won’t remain that far for long.

Young Suh: Wildfires was on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery through December 8, 2018.


  1. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. 1993.

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