UI exhibition highlights the destructive power, beauty of wildfires

IOWA CITY — The dead of winter may be the ideal time to take in a new photography exhibit at the University of Iowa called “Facing the Inferno.” It’s a collection of pictures showing the devastating impact of wildfires snapped by Kari Greer, a contract photographer with the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Idaho.

Jessica Smith, spokeswoman for the UI’s Pentacrest Museums, says it’s a spell-binding series of images.

“A lot of the photos that Kari has taken over time have been when she was close to these fires, and they may have been published or used in a journalistic way,” Smith says. “In this exhibition, they’ve been divorced from the original content that would have been published with them and reexamined from a point of fine art.”

Smith says the exhibition captures the striking visual narrative of wildfires through Greer’s lens.

“It’s really visually stunning. They range from small candid portraits of firefighters themselves — and they’re really telling, you can just see exhaustion in their eyes and of course they’re covered in soot,” Smith says, “but there’s some others that are more nature-based, focusing specifically on fire itself or smoke.”

The exhibit opened last week in the Hanson Humanities Gallery at the Old Capitol Museum, and Smith says the collection chronicles the raw intensity of massive wildfires.

“There are some of actual damage, like putting a house or some context into a human-impacted space and they’re just gorgeous,” Smith says, “and then you realize what you’re looking at, and then you have a lot of questions and there’s some deeper meaning there.”

She says the collection was assembled in the galley to delve into the evolving role of contemporary photographers, and the ecological implications of wildfires on society. “Facing the Inferno” is considered a timely and essential exhibition for everyone. Smith notes, even Iowans who are far from any wildfires experienced smoke and air quality issues last summer.

“We have a staff that’s really thinking carefully about what we want to be in there and it’s usually something that’s quite topical, and something that is going to have strong curricular connections,” Smith says. “So we can be supporting hands-on learning opportunities for our students, getting them out of their textbooks and out of their classrooms and into a space to explore and think about things, and this is a really, really strong example of that.”

Greer will be delivering a free lecture on the Iowa City campus in a few months, likely in late March or early April.