On Fire: Photographs by Larry Schwarm

This exhibition presents work by Larry Schwarm, winner of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography for his series of color images capturing the dramatic prairie fires that sweep across the Flint Hills of Kansas each spring. A professor of art at Emporia State University, Schwarm has spent the past twelve years photographing the burning of the tallgrass prairie in his native state.

Schwarm's work was selected from close to 500 entries in the inaugural competition for the CDS/Honickman First Book Prize, which offers publication of a book of photographs, a $3,000 grant, and inclusion in a traveling exhibition. Robert Adams, one of America's preeminent landscape photographers, was the judge for the 2002 prize.

Images in this exhibition were selected from Schwarm's prize-winning book, On Fire, published in November 2003 by Duke University Press and the Center for Documentary Studies.

The prints in this exhibit have been donated to the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library (RBMSCL), through the generosity of the Honickman Foundation established by Lynne and Harold Honickman. Harold Honickman is a member of the Duke University Library Advisory Board.

This gift of Larry Schwarm's exhibition prints supports RBMSCL's commitment to acquiring photographic collections that have artistic merit and that reflect the visionary purposes and documentary impulses of their creators.

View the photographs

Photography has the remarkable power to impress into memory a distillation of a particular segment of time. The desire to hold memories of how a moment looks, smells, and feels, led me to become a photographer.

Since ancient times, fire has been considered one of the four elements, along with earth, air, and water. Fire has a connection to our collective unconscious—it is good and evil, soothing and terrifying, protective and threatening, a force for destruction and rebirth. Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire; Saint Anthony is sometimes depicted with his feet in flames from stamping out the devil. Fire heats our houses but can destroy our homes. And grass, too, in its many forms is fundamental to our being on this planet. Fire and grass—how could I not be drawn to them?

The North American tallgrass prairie once covered the eastern Great Plains, stretching from Texas to Canada and covering nearly 152 million acres. Agricultural and urban development have taken their toll, and today not even 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie remains, with much of that broken into small, isolated parcels. My photographs are made on the largest remaining stand of the tallgrass prairie, the Flint Hills in east-central Kansas.

Fire is essential to the prairie ecosystem. Without it, the prairie would have grown into scrub forest. Before human habitation, unbroken expanses of grasses as tall as eight-feet high would catch on fire and burn for hundreds of miles. Native Americans set fires to entice bison to the new grass that replaced the burned. European settlers adapted the practice and burned to encourage new growth for their cattle, as well as to kill invasive trees and weeds. What started as a natural phenomenon became an annual event controlled by people. The metaphor is obvious—without destruction there is no rebirth; for every act there is an opposing one.

— Larry Schwarm, from his afterword to On Fire

Larry Schwarm's photographs of fire on the prairie are so compelling that I cannot imagine any later photographer trying to do better. His pictures convince us that seemingly far away events are close by, relevant to any serious person's life. The photographer engages our attention first by heightening our amazement at the sensuality of fire. 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.

What do the photographs mean? We recoil from that question in fear that the pictures might wither to abstraction, but their sensuality saves them. In any case we all do look for meaning in life and thus in art, its reflection. How could we not, since the two most evident characteristics of life, beauty and suffering, seem a contradiction that undermines meaning, or at least obscures it.

Because Schwarm includes views of beauty at so many different hours of day and dusk and night, and because he shows us beauty even after destruction, the pictures suggest to me that beauty lasts forever. As in the paintings of Frederic Church and the music of Beethoven and the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, it is the only answer that Nature appears to give us. It may feel a cruelly abbreviated reply, as cold as Church's pictures of icebergs, but there is no appeal. Our choice is ultimately whether to say yes to what cannot be avoided—lying down in glory with the burning grass and trees.

Though as a landscape photographer, Schwarm does not include people in his photographs, he does imply in the accompanying text something important: the fires on the Flint Hills are now usually set and shaped by people who want, in so far as they understand, to help heal the earth.

— Robert Adams, from his introduction to On Fire

On Fire: Photographs by Larry Schwarm
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Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Duke University Libraries
Duke University
The book, On Fire from Duke University Press
Photographs © Larry Schwarm
Web site © Duke University Libraries
Use and Reproduction Information
October 2003

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
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