Cole Barash, Smokejumpers

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2017 (artist site here, no book link available). Softcover, with 58 color and black and white photographs. In an edition of 200 copies, each signed and numbered. All of the profits from the sales of the book will be donated to the United States Forest Service. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Cole Barash is a self-taught artist who picked up photography at the age of fourteen. Two years later, following his intuition and dreams, he moved to California to photograph the snowboarding and surfing culture there, becoming one of the main photographers working in the field. Barash also spent a year documenting professional surfer John John Florence in Hawaii, creating an intimate and unique behind the scenes portrait of a surfing prodigy. In the past few years, Barash has focused on more personal projects in fine art photography, experimenting and pushing his creativity.

Barash’s new photobook entitled Smokejumpers looks at the brave and inaccessible world of the wildland elite firefighters who parachute into hard-to-reach areas to combat wildfires. Smokejumpers undergo intense physical training and possess a high degree of emotional stability. They learn to exit planes, successfully land in the forest, secure their airdropped equipment, and fight a forest fire miles away from help, hopefully reaching the fires early enough to fight them before they become a danger or to at least shape their path. They often stay in the forest for several days, without resupply. The smokejumper program was started in 1939 as an experiment, and the first crew stepped off a plane in 1940 into Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest. Their job is considered one of the most dangerous in the world.

Barash’s photographic project was commissioned by Filson, the 120-year old Seattle-based outdoor clothing company, to promote their collection under license from the U.S. Forest Service, with the idea of honoring the work of the federal agency. Barash followed a group of firefighters on controlled burns, a technique used in forest management. He had complete creative freedom in this project, and inspired by his experience with the smokejumpers, turned some of the images into a more personal statement, presented as a photobook.

The book has a bright yellow cover (the title is neatly placed on its upper right corner) which recalls the yellow color of smokejumpers’ uniform, the fiery flames, and the smoky light through the trees, reinforcing the visual flow. The book combines powerful portraits of firefighters with personal moments, abstract elements, and stunning shots of the forest.

Many of the photographs show firefighters hard at work: fixing their equipment, assessing the situation from an airplane, or moving on the ground in the forest. Barash largely focuses on personal moments rather than action shots. One of the first images shows a young man as he closes his helmet, looking focused and relaxed, ready to get the job done. Some of the portraits are shot against a black background, and the hanging backdrop in the forest appears prominently in one of the photographs. A full height portrait depicts a fireman in a uniform and a helmet, as he heads out to work with his gear, holding a bag, as well as back and chest packs, each filled with equipment and necessary supplies. Another picture is a close up portrait of a woman as she looks straight in the camera, reminding us that it isn’t only men who face these dangers.

Full spread photographs of the tall pine trees shrouded in thick smoke add a dreamy feel to the narrative, reminding us of the vulnerability and beauty of the setting as well as its disorienting perils. The light captured in these images is striking, using the smoke to create swirling compositions and thick fogs that engulf the silhouetted bodies. Occasional texts provide background information about current fires. One of them reads: “Long Valley Fire is located in CA and began on July 11th, 2017. It is 83,733 acres and is 40.00% contained,” putting the scale of the wildfires in stark perspective. The book also contains a selection of archival photographs that look back to the original men and women working to preserve and protect the national forests. One of the photographs dates from 1945 and is a black and white portrait of a fully equipped jumper; a detailed caption lists each element of his outfit. Another is a grainy full spread photo showing three man next to the airplane, perhaps getting ready to take off.

Barash’s portraits (and the lifestyle Filson is recreating with its clothing) tap into the long tradition of American masculinity. Like Hannes Schmid’s photographs of cowboys that became the iconic Marlboro Man campaign, these pictures celebrate the mythic ruggedness of the American wilderness, and pay respect to the toughness of the men (and women) who do these dangerous jobs. They find romantic heroism in their honest strength and dedication, channeling that fearless frontier spirit into marketing for jackets and luggage.

Smokejumpers is a modest and elegant photobook, well matched to its content. It offers an intimate look at the people who risk their lives to protect nearly 200 million acres of grasslands and national forests, and as this year might become one of the most prominent periods for wildfires in recent decades, it is also undeniably timely. As climate change shifts the traditional fire season, fires start earlier and burn longer, putting even more pressure on this small group of expert firefighters. Barash’s photographs offer an inside look into this new reality, finding unwavering courage and steadfast resolve amid the dreamily engulfing billows of smoke.

Collector’s POV: Cole Barash does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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