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Summer and smoke

September 1, 2009 |  2:58 pm

_thumb_KAM-Griffith-Park-1_jpg_520x500_detail_q85 As conflagrations go, the Station fire that is roaring through the wilds of the Angeles National Forest and the settled precincts of adjacent neighborhoods seems especially strange. Has another of L.A.'s increasingly commonplace wildfires been that huge -- more than 25 miles across, from east to west, and 18 miles from north to south! -- yet simultaneously so seemingly remote from the metropolis, except for those directly in its awful and erratic path?

What unites people downtown or in Culver City or in Monterey Park with those in Tujunga and La Cañada Flintridge, where the dangerous and devastating flames rage, is the smoke. Ethereal, ghostly smoke. In the morning it sits like fog in the canyons on the south side of the San Fernando Valley, before evaporating into daylight. Various websites feature time-lapse pictures of the ongoing catastrophe, and most focus on billowing, erupting gray clouds that appear positively nuclear.

Karin Apollonia Muller, a German-born photographer who has divided her time between L.A. and Europe for many years, has become the city's unofficial visual poet of ordinary urban catastrophe, including fires. The photograph here was made during a 2007 blaze in Griffith Park, and it too looks away from the action on the ground to isolate smoke as the primary subject of the visual field -- disturbingly lovely, even somewhat heavenly in its soft chromatic gradations.

Look closely, though. A tiny rescue helicopter emerges from the photographic ether in the lower right quadrant. Like a little insect glimpsed on a too-lush flower in a slightly overripe 17th-century Dutch still life, it hums as a cautionary note about the eternal perils of human vanity.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: Karin Apollonia Muller, "Griffith Park 1," 2007, C-print, 60x48 inches; credit: Karyn Lovegrove Gallery


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