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Burning issues by Cathy Cashio
Spring 2002      

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Burning Issues

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Building a P.R.I.N.T.
Layer by Layer

The Drive to Succeed



A Photographer's Perspective
By Angilee Wilkerson

Photo of Thom Alcoze with fire
From left: Earl, Angilee, Thom and Sally

Today begins the long journey north from Flagstaff, Ariz., to the border of Utah. It's a perfect day for a road trip — the crisp October air smells of pine and juniper, the sun is warm and bright and the sky has big puffy picture-book clouds.

I will be meeting Earl Zimmerman late in the morning and will follow him out to the Kaibab Paiute reservation where we will hook up with Thom Alcoze.

Before I meet up with the first of the two scientists, my objective is to find a health food store and stock up on trail mix and fruit, then check out a local coffee shop, a routine I have picked up on my location assignments. You can really get a feel for the locals this way, and the locals of Flagstaff are very down to earth. I feel right at home in my favorite faded jeans. Coffee in hand, donned in my warmest flannel and lucky cowgirl boots, I am ready to meet any challenge.

The drive north takes all day. The desert is like a chameleon changing repeatedly, dotted with sagebrush and cacti morphing into dense pine and aspen forest, ultimately spilling out onto a plateau cut so deep by a massive gorge it's hard to wrap the mind around. The light dances around, creating negative space as prominent as the mountains themselves.

We pull off the side of the road to check out a little makeshift jewelry stand. It seems so odd to see anyone out here, but there she is, the little old jewelry maker surrounded by nothingness, wrapped in a thick woven blanket the colors of turquoise and rust. She has patiently been waiting for someone like me to drive by. Her face has so many little lines and creases it's almost mesmerizing. I buy a strand of juniper berries, "to keep the nightmares away," she quietly tells me.

That evening I stand outside my hotel room in the freezing dark, once again mesmerized, this time by the twinkling, dancing stars active and bright in a sky that envelopes me.

The next day Thom, Earl, Thom's friend Sally and I load up the truck with all our gear and drive into the reservation. There are only dirt roads, and Thom has to drive fast and curvy to avoid getting stuck in the thick sepia dirt. It's like a roller coaster ride; I can't help but laugh each time my butt bounces off the seat.

We pass ponderosa and deer and ridges, finally arriving at the burn site. It starts to sprinkle, so I cover my camera with my bandana and start shooting. The light is incredible, the sun gives the raindrops an iridescent glow and a huge rainbow forms. The charred trees are slick from the rain. I can't believe my luck — the light is so intense, and I keep running back to the truck, grabbing more film.

Photo of Thom Alcoze with fire
The shot of Earl (left) and Thom building a fire takes real teamwork.

I know what I want for the "hero" shot. The challenge is pulling it all together. I want Thom and Earl to be standing behind a roaring fire and in front of an orange and pink sunset-lit mountain ridge. I'll light them with a large strobe and soft box from the front and rely on the ambient light to illuminate the landscape.

We have a few significant variables to contend with — finding a safe place to build a fire but still fulfill my vision of a background is one of them. The winds are high, which will make building and maintaining the fire difficult and dangerous if not well thought out. We have to guesstimate the exact time the sun will fall on the cliff we've chosen as our background.

Thom makes a prediction and determines we have about 30 minutes before optimum light. He's right on the money; his instincts are sharp.

The four of us are like bees, buzzing around, each with a task. Sally gathers wood, Earl shovels sand, Thom builds the fire and everyone helps me keep the equipment from blowing away and the sand out of my gear. I work on getting all three sources of light balanced. I'm pulling Polaroids like mad.

Amazingly, it all comes together without a hitch. It's real teamwork. That shoot is my second roller coaster ride of the day, a real rush. We end with Mexican food and stories.

Back in my hotel room — which, by the way, has a tree stump for a table — I crack the window so I can smell the desert night and thank the lucky stars hanging so low in the sky for such an incredible adventure.



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