Harvey Milk Photo Center's New 'Art Of Fire' Exhibition Captures SF Firefighters In Action

Tomorrow evening, the Harvey Milk Photo Center is celebrating the opening of a new exhibition that features San Francisco firefighters confronting the “beast": fires in the city.

"The Art of Fire: Fighting the Beast" is a collaborative exhibition that features 63 photographs taken by more than 20 photographers.

Curator Dwayne Newton found the pictures featured in this new exhibition by browsing thousands of photos online. The San Francisco Chronicle also contributed about 450 images from their archives, including the image representing the exhibit, which was taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Scott Strazzante.

PhotO: COurtesy Of Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Harvey Milk Photo Center

Newton, the exhibit's curator, is a photographer and retired SFFD lieutenant. "I wish I had a camera for some things I’d seen, but it’d probably melt," he said.

His description of the job is chilling: "When you’re crawling in an inferno, there’s a moment, with fire roaring over your head like a jet engine, ridiculous heat and noise, and you’re waiting for water, where you stop and stare in awe of the terrible beauty of the firefight."

The origins of "Art of Fire" lay with retired captain Tony Stefani, a 28-year-SFFD veteran, cancer survivor, and chairman of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation (SFFCPF), which was formed in 2006 to promote early detection and prevention of cancer in both active and retired members of the SFFD. Stefani asked Newton to find images for the SFFCPF's 10th anniversary gala next year, and the rest is history.

Newton said he thought the "most unique" images in the exhibit were taken by Joshua LaCunha, an Oakland-based photographer. LaCunha shot tintypes—a 150-year-old portrait process—of San Francisco firefighters, including the chief of the department.

Another striking photo was taken by Newton himself, in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He was in his apartment in Alamo Square when the quake hit, and once the shaking stopped, he immediately grabbed his camera gear and mountain bike and rode to the Marina.

"That was a monstrous fire," he recalls. "The firefighters and civilians fighting it had to be hosed off due to intense radiant heat."

Nine months after the earthquake, Newton joined the SFFD.

Photo: courtesy of Dwayne Newton

This is Newton's second time curating an exhibition for the Harvey Milk Photo Center. In 2012, he worked with the center's director, Dave Christensen, to curate "Visions Beyond the Badge," which showcased the lives of firefighters and police officers outside of their work. 

As a place for "the everyday San Francisco citizen," Newton says it's an appropriate setting for an exhibition centered on local firefighters.

The opening reception for "The Art of Fire" kicks off at 6:30pm tomorrow, Saturday, Sept. 17th. The exhibition will be on view until Sunday, October 16th.

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Harvey milk photo center s new art of fire exhibition captures sf firefighters in action