- Camera & Lens: Nikkormat FT2 [see our retrospective here], Nikkor-N 24mm f/2.8
- Film & Paper: Ultrafine eXtreme 100, 5×7 print on Fomaspeed Variant 312
- Location: Millcreek, Utah
Exit work, enter car. Ignition. Freeway. Interchange. Next freeway. Next interchange. Home stretch. Exit. Signal left. Acknowledge rising cloud of smoke. Hmmm, that’s new. Cancel signal. Drive towards cloud. Park! Camera! Run!
Soon enough I can see it’s one of several new apartment buildings under construction. Three stories of timber frame above three more of concrete. In the few minutes since spotting smoke a giant black column has formed.
Traffic is slowing and people are gathering. I take my place outside a bicycle shop. Standing on a concrete barrier, next to a flimsy chain link fence surrounding the footings of another new apartment, I have a clear view of the scene 500 feet ahead. Even at this distance the heat is intense.
The top floor is already collapsing. Soon the level below glows brightly. This is when it gets REALLY hot. Flames scorch two cranes above. One sways listlessly as its steel beams lose their temper. Nearby utility poles and stacks of lumber first smoke, then spontaneously ignite.
From my distant perch a wide angle lens seems like the wrong choice, as does black and white. Well, better make it count.
“Visualize!” whispers Ansel’s ghost.
“Yes, master. I see.”
“Decisive moment!” Henri expounds.
“Expose for the shadows and…”
“Hey, yeah, workin’ on it ghosties, OK? Shhh!”
There’s an uncomfortable beauty in the destruction. It’s impossible to look at anything else. Flames and smoke form kaleidoscope swirls in the white hot summer sky. Context is distorted through the lens. Time and place are removed.
Chaos has a firm grip on a good square mile. Traffic is snarled. Power transformers explode. Someone has rubbernecked their Jeep into a construction trench. Every fire truck in the city is on the way, sirens screaming. The bike shop guys pretend to be trapped inside when the power goes out.
It occurs to me that the exact spot where I’m standing was the scene of an accident last summer. A car drifted off the road, smashed through a superficial wall outside the bike shop, narrowly missed a taco cart, then wedged itself into the lawnmower shop next door. The bike shop is fixed, minus the superficial wall. Good, it was ugly. The mower shop and the ground it stood on are both gone. The taco cart relocated because hovering taco carts are not a thing – yet.
The engine crews get it under control. Jeep returns to pavement. People drift away.
Among the lingering crowd is the owner of a gym. It’s behind the smoldering apartment. She’s straining to get a better view, trying to call anyone who knows anything. “Some water damage,” she repeats, an obvious understatement.
In these awkward moments language fails. What do you say to a woman who probably just lost her business?
“Umm, sorry your gym was destroyed.” True, but insensitive. Pass.
“I’m sure it will be okay.” False, but attempts compassion. Pass.
“I hope everything is okay.” True. Attempts compassion. Yes, that is what you say.
[Adam Dorius is a family guy, engineer, fixer-of-broken-things, and amateur photographer living in Salt Lake City. Many thanks to Adam for their contribution to Single Shot Stories! ]
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Now you know. Carry the camera with the standard 50mm lens so you don’t have to feel the heat if you want to be ready for breaking news events. Your shot is better than average Lomography. Grand Master Ansel Adams was telling you stop down to f11 and to use a tripod and look at basics of position of subject in “rule of thirds”. Then he was trying to tell you the smoke plume and clouds are more interesting in this picture than the distracting lattice work of the foreground. You didn’t hear him when he whispered the camera should have been aimed higher and a red or orange filter would have made the clouds and smoke contrast. Ansel Adams would have kept driving, Cartier-Bresson would not have seen any beauty in the dirty sterile scene and would not have stopped the Gondola. People have been unimpressed with structural fire photographs since end of WWII. You will be hopefully be able to avoid panic the next time you have a decisive moment. Try shooting the whole roll next time at varied compositions.
I think you should have been listening to Steve McCurry instead.