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Lake Forest photographer captures mystery of prairie fire

Jane FultAlt

Jane Fulton Alt

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‘The Burn’

First Floor Gallery of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston, through Nov. 6. Admission is free.

Call (847) 448-8260 or visit For an overview of Alt’s photographic work, visit

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Updated: December 2, 2012 6:06AM

LAKE FOREST — Jane Fulton Alt has been taking pictures of the annual controlled prairie burns in Lake Forest for the last five years.

Now the internationally celebrated photographer has accumulated a collection of those photos entitled “The Burn,” which will be on display through Nov. 6 in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Center.

Alt had a career in clinical social work while exploring various artistic outlets.

She switched from fiber-arts and quilting to photography nearly 20 years ago because she felt it had more potential for self-expression. Apparently so, since she has exhibited work all over the world, and her photos are in prestigious permanent collections.

“I don’t really think of myself as a photographer,” Alt said. “I use photography to try and understand issues about living. It’s really been a tool for me personally.”

She said the “Burn” photos happened for a couple of reasons.

“I was doing a residency at Ragdale (in Lake Forest) five years ago and I had the chance to observe controlled burns of the prairie lands up there, Alt said. “I was fascinated by them because they are so beautiful, yet so destructive.

Yet, they were constructive, also, because they cleared the land and made way for new growth,” she added. “I also felt drawn to them because I started shooting the same day, almost the same hour, that my sister started chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer — a treatment with the same sort of destructive/regenerative nature. Every time I looked through the viewfinder, I thought about what was happening to her.

With each photo, whether you’re working in a wet or dry darkroom, you have to try to figure out how to make the image sing,” Alt noted. “Some are cropped, some are tinted. In the case of the “Burn” photos, the fire is sweeping so fast that you have to shoot really quickly and I can’t always see what’s going on.

“So, it’s snap, snap, snap and then study at the pictures when you get back. A lot of work goes into figuring out where the magic is — or if there is any in the first place,” she said. “I took so many pictures during the burns and most of them didn’t mean anything to me when I looked at them later. For me there has to be some sort of metaphor or magic to the image for me to want to work on it and print it.

“When I was looking through the burn photos, I was searching for clarity and a sort of misty quality,” she said. “The smoke that obscures and reveals. That’s what interests me the most, as well as how the sun is coming through, if it is.”

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