Jack Firneno, the Wire
Larry Browne still remembers being in preschool when there was a fire large enough for him to see from his family’s 14th-story apartment in the Bronx.
“There was a big explosion and lots of smoke, and my dad said, ‘Let’s go take a walk and check it out,’ ” he recalled.
That was about when Browne says he caught the fire bug. “There’s just something about a firetruck that attracts people,” he said. “I still see it in adults today.”
After a few similar incidents, combined with meeting a family friend who was a firefighter and flipping through the black and white photos in a New York City firefighters magazine, following fires — and photographing them — became a lifelong passion for him.
And, that passion will be on display this week at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. Browne will present a collection of photos and talk about his work at Shooting Fire: Memories of 30 Years as a Fire Scene Photographer, on Saturday, May 2.
Now a volunteer firefighter in Doylestown, Browne started “chasing” fires with a camera when he came to Philadelphia in the late ’70s. A physical education major at Temple University, he wrote for the college’s newspaper and took that opportunity to cover fires in North Philadelphia.
Later, he worked for the Northeast Times, which gave him a scanner and the assignment to chase breaking news.
“The first thing I did was find the fire frequency,” he said.
There, he shot many of the pieces that will be on display at the Mercer. There’s one of the infamous tire fire under I-95 in Philadelphia back in 1996.
It was, incidentally, the eve of the 125th anniversary of the Philadelphia Fire Department, and Browne recalled just heading out and capturing a striking photo of the flames, so bright that the firefighters in front of it came out looking merely like silhouettes.
“I just stumbled on it. No one knew the implications until the next day,” he recalled.
Another, in black and white, depicts a firefighter in a window at a small fire on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. Taken at just the right moment, it captures the water shooting upward out of a hose.
“There are a lot of challenges, especially if there’s less fire and more smoke, plus the light from the trucks,” said Browne. “They’re always different, you just have to feel them out.”
He compares shooting fires to sports photography: “You don’t pick your lighting or background or weather. And in sports, you can get bowled over by a player coming off the sidelines.”
Of course, he noted, the dangers on a fireground are much more real and the situation much more chaotic: “You have to have your head on a swivel and be alert to everything that can go wrong.”
But that sense of danger is also what’s attractive about the fires — both for the people fighting it and the people capturing it on film. “Adrenaline is a big part of firefighting, whether you’re fighting the fire or helping out,” he explained. “You never know what’s going to happen and that’s part of the challenge. You have to be ready all the time.”
Browne knows all too well. Today, he’s a volunteer firefighter in Doylestown, where he’s lived for 16 years, after getting his start on “the other side of the tape” in Rockledge, just outside of Philadelphia, thanks to some contacts in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
At the time, the Department would use some of his photos for educational purposes. “We were discussing after-action on a fire and someone asked, ‘Why don’t you start running with someone?’ So they hooked me up with Rockledge, right over the border,” Browne recalled.
Today, Browne is also the public information officer and fire prevention officer in
Doylestown. He still takes photos, but many of them are less “artsy,” as he says, and more for educational purposes.
Fire departments often use photographs to critique their work after a fire, pointing to incidents caught on camera to review what they thought at the time and how they proceeded. “It’s easier to do with visuals,” said Browne.
But there’s also a sense of tradition and morale when it comes to those pictures, and a historical aspect that Browne says ties in with the Mercer exhibit.
“One of the first things you notice when you go through a fire house is a lot of pictures on the wall. Every picture is a piece of history,” he said. “I’ve never had a firefighter not want a copy of a photos he’s in. It’s part of the fabric of the firefighting tradition.”
The Mercer Museum, 84 South Pine St. in Doylestown, will host Shooting Fire: Memories of 30 Years as a Fire Scene Photographer on May 2 from 2 to 3 p.m. Free for members or with museum admission. For information, call 215–345–0210 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.