Fire, before and after, Lyon County, 1992. Photo: Larry Schwarm
Fire, before and after, Lyon County, 1992. Photo: Larry Schwarm

Lick of Fire, Curl of Smoke

Writer: 
March 31, 2004

Every spring for as long as some folks in east-central Kansas can recall, ranchers--like Native Americans before them--set fire to vast areas of tall-grass prairie as a way of returning nutrients to the soil and encouraging new growth. For more than a decade, photographer Larry Schwarm, a professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, has documented this annual ritual. His efforts are collected in a 128-page book, On Fire, published by Duke University Press, in association with Lyndhurst Books of the Center for Documentary Studies.

Schwarm's work was chosen from among 500 submissions as the inaugural winner of what is intended as a major new prize for American photographers: The Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. The prize,which will be given biennially, carries with it a $3,000 cash award, as well as the opportunity for the winner to have his or her photographs published in a book and included in a traveling exhibition. Schwarm's photographs were featured in an exhibition at Perkins Library last semester and are now in the collection of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

"Schwarm's photographs of fire on the prairie are so compelling that I cannot imagine any later photographer trying to do better," writes Robert Adams in the introduction to On Fire. "His pictures convince us that seemingly far away events are close by, relevant to any serious person's life." Adams, a nationally known photographer in his own right, was the judge for the inaugural prize.

Schwarm "engages our attention first by heightening our amazement at the sensuality of fire," Adams continues. "Most of us have enjoyed looking into a fireplace, but few of us have observed as well as he has the astonishing shapes and colors and fluidity of fire. He is so skilled in recording its appearance that occasionally we almost hear the burning and feel the warmth."

Although Schwarm has been a serious photographer for some thirty years, On Fire is his first book. "My photographs are made on the largest remaining stand of the tallgrass prairie, the Flint Hills in east-central Kansas," he writes in the book. "Fire is essential to the prairie ecosystem. Without it, the prairie would have grown into scrub forest.

"I never intended to document the fires in the strictest sense of the word, but rather to capture every essence of them, from calm and lyrical to angry and raging," he writes. "I discovered in the fires' subtleties and abstractions a spirituality akin to what Mark Rothko expressed in his color-field paintings. These qualities, both quiet and other-worldly, form what I see as the sublime and mystical character of the burning landscape, where images are at once both sensuous and menacing."

The text and images are from On Fire. © 2003 Duke University Press in association with Lyndhurst Books of the Center for Documentary Studies. Used with permission.