Photographer Jane Fulton Alt has long held a fascination with life, death — and what comes in between. But in 2007, the artist from Evanston, Illinois, found herself with an extremely personal connection to the bookends of our existence.
In the span of a few days, Alt's sister was diagnosed with cancer, and her first grandchild was born.
"The juxtaposition of these two events stunned me," Alt writes in an essay for her 2013 photo book, The Burn.
During this time of personal upheaval, Alt attended an artist residency at the Ragdale Foundation, outside of Chicago, and she had the opportunity to watch a controlled prairie burn nearby.
"To witness and photograph a controlled burn is to place oneself in the presence of a certain 'terrible beauty,'" Alt writes. "I attempted to capture the ephemeral moment when life and death are not opposed, but are harmonized as a single process — to be embraced as one."
Since witnessing and photographing that first controlled burn eight years ago, Alt has visited countless prairies, woodlands, and wetlands across northern Illinois, shooting the fiery, fleeting moments. Controlled burns, Alt notes, are used to restore or maintain natural habitats in the spring or fall. The weather has to be just so, and even then, voluntarily choosing to get close can seem like a questionable decision.
"Controlling — and photographing — burns is arduous and potentially dangerous," Alt says in an email interview. "I try to stay ahead of the smoke, but often, because of the angle of the sun, or the way the wind is blowing, I need to push myself into it."
It took several seasons of shooting the burns before Alt says she began to do more than just react during her sessions at the prairielands.
"Fire and smoke are my equivalents; abstract manifestations of an inner state where the unknowable resides," she explains in the essay. "Reference points and orientation are intentionally obscured. I have no interest in realistically rendering the landscape. Rather, I look for visual references of a place that my mind cannot grasp, a place in which the sublime resides."
While Alt's series stemmed from a birth — and, sadly, later a death — her photographs of the fires have developed even past these personal moments.
"I am always trying to explore life's mystery," she says. "I'm looking for images that attempt to address the ineffable."