In a State of Non-Emergency

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I have become preoccupied with natural disasters, especially when they cause the loss of one's home. The exhibition “Fire Scene” makes the fears of such losses a reality.

The show consists of ten large-scale color photographs of domestic spaces on fire. These images were produced when the artist, Sarah Pickering, was in residence at the UK Fire Training College. The interiors are burn units designed to simulate accidental household blazes. Pickering was granted access to photograph the scenarios before the trainees extinguished the flames.

What alarms most in the photographs are not what objects are burning or what is about to be burned, it is the steadiness of the camera. Carefully composed, crisp, lush prints indicate that the artist was probably using a large format view camera on a tripod. What fire victim has time to set up cumbersome equipment and frame the shot in a methodical calm fashion? None.

Sarah Pickering takes a coldly precise eye to catastrophe.

Daniel Cooney Fine Art

511 W. 25th St., suite 506

Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.

Through Mar. 15


How odd it is to see an emergency situation without urgency. In each instance, the camera seems placed in the doorway, at an equal distance to the fire. The fire in all but two are somewhat contained and are at a point right when the flames are about to rage out of control.

These photographs are very clear. Traces of smoke appear here and there. No big, black clouds obstruct your vision, as in the case of a real event. There is no hurried, rushed feeling, just a meditative look at the flames. Disaster is made beautiful. Amber pockets envelop parts of a room, while other sections remain undisturbed. The rooms are constructed as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms all with a lived-in atmosphere.

There is a real effort to make the environments super ordinary. The details are mundane – a shirt hung up, toys on the carpet, shoes, stacks of magazines. These objects would normally read as clues to the inhabitants, however, these spaces don't belong to anyone. There is no owner. There is no loss.

Because of the austere furnishings, I started to identify with the images. My father was always paranoid of household fires, to the point of never allowing our family to have a real Christmas tree during the holidays. The lights, he claimed, got too hot. Always unplug cords. Get rid of those stacks of papers. Don't block doorways and never, ever put an electrical heater so close to sheets or clothing. I started to hear his voice warning me as I looked at these photographs.

While I was in the gallery, I heard an ambulance go by on the street. Not taking any chances, I avoided the elevator and exited the building via the stairs.