Taken in the haze of summer smoke, the black-and-white photos featured in the University Center’s Gallery don’t need color to capture a landscape ravaged by wildfire. Pictures of the charred bark of trees, rivers winding between fire-scarred hills and a burnt tree trunk in a field of wildflowers depict fires both as an agent of destruction and of rejuvenation.
“Burnt landscapes are often thought of as ugly and destroyed and catastrophic,” said Mark Kreider, a UM doctoral student in forest and conservation sciences. “But a landscape like the Selway-Bitterroot has had fires for thousands of years. I see it as a portrait of a landscape linked to fire.”
Kreider, who grew up in the great plains of Kansas, discovered his love for photography his freshman year of high school using an old point-and-shoot camera to take pictures of his yard. Since then, he’s taken his love for photography to the field. For two months, Kreider carried a camera through 1-3 million acres of the rugged Selway-Bitterroot wilderness to take pictures of the burnt landscape shown in his UC gallery’s new exhibit “Wilderness Fire.”
The gallery is in tandem with Kreider’s dissertation research of how warm and dry weather compared to cool and wet weather influences forest development over several decades.
Kreider said he calls the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness a great “natural laboratory,” because fires are allowed to burn naturally without suppression.
Working with a UM research team, Kreider studied vegetation, structure, composition and fuel loads. Kreider said he shot his pictures spontaneously in between setting up camp and rigorous field work.
His gallery features photos of wide-open landscapes and closeup shots of old, charred trees. “Morning in the Selway,” a photo of the Selway River winding through both barren hills and hills lush with trees, reflects this dichotomy between the landscape, Kreider said. For photos like “Charred Snag and Burned Trees,” Kreider focuses on the patterns left behind by fire on tree bark.
Regardless of the composition, Kreider said he quickly decided he wanted all of his photos to be black and white because it captures both the smoke and the long history of the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness.
“Black and white kind of has a timeless feel to it,” said Kreider. “Which is why I thought it was appropriate for a place where fires have been a thing for a long time.”
Amanda Barr, the UC gallery director, said she was intrigued by the composition of the gallery, particularly because of its contrast to previous exhibits featured in the UC. She said generally artists get a lot of freedom, but that photographers are sometimes restricted to what’s in front of them.
For “Wilderness Fire,” Barr said Kreider effectively works with composition for a land marked by fire.
“It kind of captures the power of the land,” Barr said. “It’s the brutality of the burn and the starkness of the landscape that makes it beautiful.”
Barr also noted how Kreider’s photos were taken on land where the Nez Perce and Salish Kootenai peoples historically used fires to modify landscapes and food resources in beneficial ways. But with the removal of Indigenous peoples from their native lands, fire stewardship ended and fire suppression began.
Andrew Larson, a UM professor of forest ecology and Kreider’s advisor, said that the illusion that fire suppression is the solution is fundamentally flawed.
“You’re just deferring risk,” Larson said. “Every fire you manage to put out, you still have fuels on the landscape and you’re just kicking the can down the road.”
But Larson clarified that fire can’t be ignored. Prescribed fire that can be controlled, Larson said, is essential to reduce hazardous fuel loads near developed areas, restore natural wood lands and manage landscapes.
Kreider said he hopes to continue to raise more awareness for fire suppression and mitigation through his photography. He said photos are sometimes a better alternative to long research papers.
“It’s a fun thing as a scientist,” Kreider said. “Lots of times we just collect data and publish it in a journal. So I think it’s cool to have more approachable ways to share ideas.”
“Wilderness Fire” is on display in the UC gallery from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Dec. 10.