As a breed, photographers are notoriously reluctant to pick the single best photograph they’ve ever taken. It’s not exactly false modesty. Instead, there is a shared anticipation that the “best” image is still ahead of them, a future treasure to be uncovered through maturing vision, skill, and yes, luck. The allure of the next great picture (and the one after that) is like a ghostly light house beacon shining through a dark night.
But what if you have to pick one- the one– from all the photographs you’ve actually taken …one single image that escaped the wishful conceit of future happenstance, and simply stood on its own merits? The choice is easier than you might think. That photograph may simply pick you.
On a cloud-tossed evening in September, 2021, I came across a man named Duane, on NE Highland Road near Lincoln City, Oregon. Duane and a small crew of workers were clearing the last of the trees burned on his land in the Labor Day Fires of 2020. During that single weekend, more Oregon land burned than in the previous 120 years. 11% of Cascade Mountain Forests were destroyed. 40,000 people were evacuated. Driven by 50 mph winds whipping across the state, the escalating fires killed 9 people.
Duane was almost one of them. Nearing midnight on September 8, high winds pushed the Echo Mountain fire up the south side of the ridge towards his home. He barely escaped with his wife and dog, driving down NE Highland between walls of flame lining both sides of the road.
Almost a year later, when I met Duane, I was deep into The Aftermath Project, documenting the impact of the Labor Day fires on Oregon communities and individuals. In gathering twilight, Duane stood in the middle of his burned land, and told me the story of that night. As we talked, the skies darkened and the wind picked up. Duane’s gaze turned to the north, the direction the fire had come from. For a few seconds, I thought I could see the look on his face change as he remembered the night of the fire: first to fear, then to recognition, and finally to a gritty determination to survive. The shutter snapped as the story was told. I think I knew, even before seeing it, that this was “the one”.
The resulting image was featured in three exhibitions of the Aftermath Project in Oregon galleries, and accompanied Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the Siletz Bay Music Festival in 2022. The photograph was a finalist in the One Eyeland International Black and White contest, in 2021.
The Aftermath Project (Up From the Ashes): see Environmental Portraits in Menu, above.