Fighting fire with photos

Fighting fire with photos

21 January 2010

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USA — The tall, billowing clouds of smoke sweeping through dense trees is an easy sight to recognize, as the sky turns that eerie shade of orange. Prescribed fires happen regularly around Flagstaff and the surrounding area. But in our dry climate, some fires are started by lightning—the raw power of nature cracking the sky in a split second. Local photographer Brandon Oberhardt is on a quest to capture lightning and fire on film, sharing its beauty and benefits with his viewers.

Oberhardt’s artistic career began when he was growing up. His mother is Arizona watercolorist Roberta Rogers, who specializes is figurative works. Watching her throughout the years, Oberhardt recognized a difference in mindset between them that made artistic styles such as watercolor an unlikely choice of medium for him.

“To me, my mom is a huge inspiration because she is her work,” says Oberhardt. “I’ve always envied her for that, and I’ve always wanted to be that. It’s maybe a difference in our personality; she can kind of zone in on one thing, I try to get all the way around it.”

Photography provided a way for Oberhardt to release his creative edge. He began attending Northern Arizona University, spending massive amounts of time in the darkroom. He was fascinated by the technical aspects of the work.

Getting a good picture is more than simply pointing a camera and pressing a button. Different camera settings will achieve different effects.

Slow the shutter speed and images become blurred action. With a faster speed, action is captured as it happens without blur—a critical component when capturing a split-second occurrence like lightning. “I liked the science of developing, where it was something that was all me,” says Oberhardt. “I could spend a little extra time in the fixer and change the whole dynamics of the picture. To me, photography is a science. There are so many different controls to it; it’s really up to the individual as to what you want to do with it.”

Following his 2003 graduation with a degree in photography and electronic media minor, Oberhardt became a professional woodland firefighter. His decision was precipitated by a love of the outdoors and spending time in nature.

“I think Brandon’s trying to form a new niche for himself,” says Peter Schwepker, NAU photojournalism professor. “He’s following what he loves to do. He loves nature, and he’s following that. He’s putting the two together, and his love for photography and nature one day is going to land him in a very famous position.”

Oberhardt credits Schwepker—one of his former teachers—as one of the biggest influences on his work. When he started out, Oberhardt found himself suffering from a fear of photographing people. Schwepker says that this is a common fear, one he must face with all of his fledgling students.

The fear of people soon turned into an idea that molded Oberhardt’s future compositions. Schwepker’s classes taught him that people and the landscape are inseparable when it comes to framing a photo.

“You can have an average landscape shot, and if you have a good portraiture in there, it’s an excellent photo,” says Oberhardt. “That’s one thing that I’ve carried over to my landscape photography, whether it be photographing fire or photographing lightning. You can take an average landscape and if you can get a cool bolt of lightning coming through it, it makes it a really unique photograph.”

Oberhardt recently held a show at Brandy’s Restaurant earlier this month, showcasing a series of his lightning photos. In the past year, he has been unable to photograph fires for various reasons, but he is planning to return to fire photography over the coming year, something he is extremely excited about.

“I go back and look at my collection of fire photographs and I just can’t believe how amazing they are,” Oberhardt says. “After years of looking at them, they speak very loudly to me.”

While his lightning photos are usually composed so the lightning is framed against a backdrop such as a building, Oberhardt’s fire photography tends to be more intimate and up-close to the subject. He has shot fire in a variety of ways, from a building in the forefront of a wildfire to an up-close shot of a pinecone in flames.

His fire photography also provides him with a voice to express his feelings about the element. When fire appears on the news, it is typically because of a blaze gone bad, destroying trees and everything in its wake. “I like to beat a fire and I like to show it to the people out there, getting to see the good work that it does,” Oberhardt says. “Smokey the Bear kind of gave fire a bad rap, and really, fire’s an integral part of our landscape. It’s just as important as wind and rain really, especially here in the Southwest.”

When Smokey the Bear appeared in 1944 telling everyone how to prevent forest fires, the cartoon character’s intentions were undoubtedly good. However, the forest fire prevention campaign doesn’t talk about using fire as a tool for forest health.

If fire were an appliance, Oberhardt would call it nature’s vacuum cleaner. One of its many functions is clearing away dead underbrush. This provides valuable nutrients and soil for new plants to grow. The heat simultaneously forces pinecones to open, spreading seeds to the freshly cleared dirt.

Locals can gain a new appreciation for fire, and the lightning that sometimes causes it, at Oberhardt’s new exhibit going up at NAU’s School of Communication Gallery. Gene Balzer, NAU’s senior photography instructor, is organizing the show with a combination of Oberhardt’s lightning and fire photography.

The show will remain in the gallery through Fri, Feb. 5. For more information on the show and gallery hours call 523-2232. To see more examples of Oberhardt’s photography, visit

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