Tragedy struck Northern California in 2017 when the Atlas Peak Wildfire ripped through Napa County. Entire communities were reduced to piles of ash and precious family treasures were lost forever.
For photographer Norma Quintana, the remnants of her home provided a stark backdrop for mourning, healing, and a fascinating series of images.
Norma’s Forage From Fire series features photographs of her charred personal items, set against the black gloves that first-responders used to sift through the rubble.
Recently, we sat down with Norma to chat about her incredible career as a photographer, printing her work at Dickerman Prints, and her exhibition at SF Camerawork.
What was the first camera you remember using?
As far as I can remember, I had a camera on me all the time and recall having a 35mm KODAK INSTAMATIC 104 camera. Color of course!
How did your love of photography grow?
My academic background is in Sociology. I obtained a post graduate degree in the social science and justice. I share this because my interest has always been in gathering and analyzing evidence. Photography was a natural fit for me as I began to document.
I learned the craft of photography class by class, shot 35 mm, black and white then moved on to a medium format camera. The Forage From Fire was done with the iPhone camera and is my first ever digital and color body of work. The learning curve has been dramatic.
What is the most impactful photograph you've ever created?
Such a great question! I would say the Forage From Fire Glove image with a burned camera.
You studied under Mary Ellen Mark, Graciela Iturbide, Sally Mann, and Shelby Lee Adams. How does their tutelage influence your photography today?
I learned a great deal from these icons! So many lessons! Graciela Iturbide taught me compassion, Shelby Lee Adams: dedication and commitment to a project and Mary Ellen Mark, grit. Sally Mann shared her wisdom.
What led you to co-found PhotoAlliance and how are you still involved with the organization today?
I had wanted to create and support a photography culture in the Bay Area. I was on the Board of Directors for up to 10 years and attend their amazing lecture series. It is a jewel in the art community. (learn more about Photo Alliance here)
Your Forage From Fire series has gained a lot of media attention, and is currently featured in an exhibition at SF Camerawork.
Before jumping into the work itself, would you be willing to share a personal story from the Atlas Peak wildfire (that has nothing to do with photography)?
Prior to the fire I had been consumed by Hurricane Maria. My immediate family is from Puerto Rico. As life would have it, I had been trying to reach my aunt and cousin who live on the island and had not been successful. I was on high alert.
On the day I learned that we had lost my home and studio of over 25 years to the firestorm, I received a call from my aunt who was worried for my safety. I learned she was safe and I shared that I had lost my home. My aunt sent her blessings.
Forage From Fire is an incredibly personal project, focusing on personal items that were rescued from your home and studio. Can you share a bit of your inspiration for the series?
The creation of Forage From Fire was uber organic and unplanned! It was so innate in me to forage for recognizable items on the burned site. I remember thinking …. this is my personal 9-11. I was not really inspired but more compelled to document. The loss was about home.
How did you choose which objects to feature?
All the objects were found with the use of a sifter. In my home I was the collector … so I knew the genesis of my physical world. Also, I focused on what would fit with a glove.
You used an iPhone X to create the images in Forage From Fire. As someone who traditionally uses film as your medium, can you describe the experience of using such a different camera?
I have always believed that creating images is not about the camera! With that in mind, I would say that the issue for me was the use of color. Also, it is the first time I created work digitally.
Can you describe your process and setup for creating the images in Forage From Fire?
I foraged using a industrial respirator mask and a sifter created for me by a volunteer in a winery. They knew there was going to be demand for people who were looking through their wreckage. I recall finding artifacts and immediately wanting to photographed them and upon my return to the temporary home I was in… started to photograph as I always do… with available light .
There's a certain beauty in the contrast of your burned treasures against a black rubber glove. How did that concept come to be? Was everyone given those gloves when they returned to their home, or did you borrow a few from the cleanup crew?
The gloves were given to me by first responders. We were all given masks and masks! Initially, there was extensive smoke and everything destroyed.
You mention that your project has had a deep impact on those recovering from the trauma of the fire. Can you describe how that impact manifests itself?
I have heard from so many people that they find the images both staggering and hopeful… some even said liberating. I believe they see a person who lost everything and had a story to tell.
I have heard from strangers across the world… via social media platforms. I have also received art books and prints from people who I have somehow touched with Forage From Fire.
You have been working closely with Dickerman Prints to prepare your images for the Camerawork exhibition. Can you describe what that process has been like?
Working with Seth, Gabriel, and Garnell are my dream team. I knew I was in great hands when I learned they had started in the dark room. They approach the work as artisans.
Thanks again for your time. Before we go, do you have any words of wisdom for photographers starting their careers?
Remember that photographs are not taken they are created!
Try everything: photojournalism, landscape, portraiture etc.
Study the work of other photographers.
Get your hands on photo artbooks.
Learn the craft of photography.
Photograph when you have something to say.