Schwarm photographs all stages of the controlled-burn process, from before the fire to the regrowth the following spring. However, it is the photographs of these fires burning the prairie at night that he is best-known for making. Each of these pictures is a long-exposure made using the existing light cast by the moon and the flames themselves.
Legacy Collection purchase
Legacy Collection artworks made possible with private funds from the Margaret Heffernan Permanent Collection Fund, the Unnamed Foundation, the M.A. Martin Everist Foundation, and the Blockbuster II Partners.
While Schwarm’s photographs of fire are part of the long-standing documentary tradition in photography, the images that result are much more than mere records of annual “controlled burns” in the Kansas prairie. Because even though these fires are set—rather than naturally occurring “wild” fires—when they become the images Schwarm makes, what they evoke is less a matter of documentation than it is a depiction of the sensuous, transformative power of fire. The prosaic landscape becomes ethereal, abstracted by the advance of the flames across the plain, recalling the dramatic plays of light and shadow in John Singer Sergeant’s paintings of the sea, or James McNeill Whistler’s nocturnes. Both these painters created images where light becomes a physically tangible material, giving their pictures an unreal character where distance and form dissolve into one another. What they achieved with paint, Schwarm does with photography.