SAN FRANCISCO — Smoke has cleared somewhat in the San Francisco Bay Area despite devastating wildfires fires that are still raging in California, with the Glass Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties growing to tens of thousands of acres.
Last month, during the worst of the conflagrations in the Bay, social media and news outlets were inundated with images of smoky, blazing-red skies.
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On the morning of September 9, photographer and professor Jamil Hellu woke up to the view of an unsettling sky in his San Francisco apartment.
“I’m very affected by the light,” he told Hyperallergic. “I woke up late, at 9:30[am], and I thought it was still night.”
A photography instructor at Stanford University, he documented what he was seeing with his iPhone, taking photos of the light coming in through the windows in different rooms of his apartment.
“On my end, I worked with saturation and contrast,” said Hellu, who felt he was ultimately able to capture the sky’s strange color. “I never experienced in my life that type of orange. I haven’t experienced the tonality and the darkness. It was a conversation in my head of how to translate that.”
Hellu says he felt that rather than the haze appearing as a cloud, the air itself had color. He describes that Wednesday as a lost day, where he felt too unsettled to do much and didn’t leave his apartment all day.
“Everything I tried to do, I couldn’t do successfully,” he said. “I was thinking how the fires are out of hand and how much destruction there’s been and having empathy around what’s happening in nature in the whole West.”
Meanwhile, Kit Castagne, who recently moved from Brooklyn back to San Francisco, grabbed his camera and went out to capture the phenomenon when he realized that the sliver of sky he could see from his window wasn’t getting lighter as the day progressed. Castage went to the Haight Ashbury near his house; then to the Sunset, a neighborhood by Golden Gate Park that stretches to the ocean; and finally to the Mission District. He found some differences in the neighborhoods, he said, with fog making the Sunset much darker. Unlike iPhones, he said his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV did not present an issue by color correcting his photos of the eerie light.
In the afternoon, Castagne went to Oakland, where his friend Alaistair Boone — the editor of Street Spirit, a newspaper covering homelessness and poverty — had asked him to accompany her to two encampments to talk to people and take photos.
A lot of the people Castagne photographed that day were understandably confused by the fiery sky, he said, but were grateful that it was cooler. “The general sentiment was it was better to be dark and orange than 100 degrees and smoky,” he said.
That same morning, Berkley-based photographer Janet Delaney, known for her images of cities in transition, woke up to an orange sky in Stinson Beach, a small town north of San Francisco where she’s temporarily residing.
“It seemed like the end of days,” she said. “You might think it would be better in Stinson, but it wasn’t. We had the same smoke and fog and temperature.”
The skies in Northern California, and the entire West Coast, had been smoky and full of ash for a couple weeks due to dozens of fires burning throughout the state. But on that day, only red, orange, and yellow light made it through the filter of the smoke. The sky stayed dark all day, leading to thousands of Instagram posts, and talk of the end times and Mars.
Delaney took her cameras and drove back to Berkeley, taking photos from her iPhone. Despite her apocalyptic surroundings, Delaney saw that her phone was filtering the light, making the sky look more gray than orange. Many photographers and novices shared this experience, struggling with their phone’s inability to depict their dire surroundings; writer Ian Bogost explored this phenomenon in an article for Atlantic Magazine, “Your Phone Wasn’t Built for the Apocalypse.”
Delaney next visited the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, which she has documented for years. She went to a friend’s roof to take pictures, and the sky was so dark at noon that she needed to use her tripod to stabilize the camera to capture such low light, which she says she found “gut-wrenching.”
Though finding the sky “quite troubling emotionally and physically,” she says she “seized the moment of possibly by making a dramatic photo of the LinkedIn building and Facebook, mostly empty in the middle of the day.”
“It’s my apocalypse photo,” she said, “and God willing, there won’t be anything worse in the arc to this story.”