In the summer of 2011, in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, a falling power line sparked a wildfire that burned 158,753 acres of forest. From their home in Santa Fe, thirty air miles southeast, photographers Patricia Galagan and Philip Metcalf watched what came to be known as the Las Conchas fire burn day and night for more than a month.
As soon as the roads reopened, they went to the mountains to see the damage this violent fire had wrought. Taking a trail to the rim of Cochiti Canyon, they passed through sections of forest that had burned so hot that nothing remained but blackened trunks and negative spaces where huge tree roots had been. The canyon and the waves of ridges beyond were black with standing dead trees.
The visual chaos of the burned forest, at first daunting, pushed them to look harder, to see differently. As they did so, the forest began to look beautiful in its highly altered state. For more than seven years they were compelled to make photographs of the aftermath of the fire to draw people beyond the news-cycle images of smoke and flames into the reality of a forest after an extreme fire. Fire Ghosts is both their ode to the old forest and their gift to help us understand that, in this era of accelerating climate change and increasingly devastating wildfires all over the American West, the new forests will never be the same, but we can still find beauty and enlightenment in the aftermath.
Patricia Galagan is a fine-art photographer based in Santa Fe whose work often concerns the aftermath of upheaval in the landscape. Her work has been shown at the New Mexico Museum of Art, Fototeca de Cuba in Havana, and Fotografika Gallaery in Switzerland, and Photollucida awarded her a solo show at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, in 2014
Philip Metcalf is a landscape photographer who creates black-and-white infrared images. His passion is to interpret nature, both pristine and altered by man, especially in the American Southwest. Increasingly, environmental concerns influence his work. In 2015, he was an artist-in-residence at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico with his wife, Patricia Galagan. His work has been shown at the New Mexico Museum of Art and the San Diego Art Institute and is included in the photo archives of the New Mexico History Museum.
Craig Allen, Ph.D., is a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, specializing in ecosystem dynamics. He is the author of ninety-seven research publications, many about tree mortality, climate-change-related drought and stress in the landscape, and ecosystems in the mountain West.
William deBuys is a conservationist and the author of eight books, including A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011) and, with Alex Harris, River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life (New Mexico, 1990), a finalist for the Pulitzer Price in general non-fiction.
Katherine Ware is Curator of Photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, where she organized the exhibition and book Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011). She previously served as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
"Tracing fire history through scars is an old practice. But these photos by Metcalf and Galagan record a fire that scarred not just trees but the spirit. Like the images of tiny shoots amid looming boles, the book also speaks to a long, uncertain process of change that may or may not be healing. Fire Ghosts is a gripping poster for the Pyrocene."
– Stephen J. Pyne, author of Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America