Victoria and Albert Museum, London; virtual tour online
Charred aftermaths from the Amazon to Australia loom large in the latest global award for photography and sustainability
Photo-reportage is said to have begun with a fire – specifically the great fire of Hamburg in 1842. German photographers Hermann Biow and Carl Ferdinand Stelzner hauled their cameras up to the top of a high building to capture the devastation below. The equipment weighed as much they did and the daguerreotype process was too slow to catch the flames in action. But their images of burnt-out buildings were seen around the world: epochal news photography.
Fire is easy to start but historically hard to depict. Painting hardly manages it at all without freezing the flames, as it were. Of course there are exceptions – Turner’s wild watercolours of the Houses of Parliament burning down, dashed off in the scorching heat of the moment from a boat on the Thames – but even the two-dimensional medium of photography has some trouble recording fire’s spectacular speed, spread and volatility. Moving images generally hold the main advantage.