Firefall (The Benefit of Bad Documentation)
In 2005 I went on a camping trip to Yosemite National Park. While standing on top of the cliff at Glacier Point overlooking the valley 3,000 feet below, I overheard a ranger tell his tour group, “And this is where they used to create the waterfall of fire.” With my interest adequately piqued, the ranger told me the history of the Firefall:
“For nearly a century,” he began, “a nightly ritual took place atop this cliff. Staff from the old Glacier Point Hotel would create large fires, burning them down into piles of red-hot embers. In a controlled and choreographed manner, two men with metal plates welded to long steel poles would shovel them off the precipice so that the falling embers appeared to someone watching from the valley as a waterfall of fire.”
Though many histories have been attributed to its source—from a form of communication that Native Americans used across the valley, to a way for settlers to dispose of trash—for most of its eighty-six-year lifespan the Firefall was a form of entertainment witnessed by thousands of park guests. So many, in fact, that in January 1968 the National Park Service ordered it discontinued due to the overwhelming number of visitors it attracted.
I’m an unabashed fan of large-scale spectacles. From the Amazon to the Himalayas, from Rio’s Carnaval to the gardens of Kyoto, I’ve gone to great lengths in search of natural and man-made splendor to fuel my visual thrills. To stumble across something as spectacular as the Firefall felt like a gift dropped into my lap. Yet the fact remained: the event had ended decades ago, and I would never have the chance to experience it firsthand. “As beautiful as it was to watch the Firefall from the valley,” said the ranger in closing, “it was equally amazing to stand up here on the cliff and see thousands of camera flashes go off from above.”
Those “thousands of camera flashes” got me thinking. What if I were to track down those photographs buried in basements and attics and edit them together into a exhibition or book? Might it not be interesting to see a collection of primary-source documents of the same event over time? Considering that portable cameras became popular in the mid-’50s, I should have no trouble finding hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs to choose from, right?
After two years scouring websites, chatrooms, and online marketplaces, as well as making trips to the Yosemite Research Library and the National Archives, I came up with a total of only eleven photographs. Eleven! My reasoning behind the lack of available photographs was that attempting to shoot light at night was extremely difficult for consumer cameras of earlier eras. Once vacationers picked up their developed photos, they may have simply thrown them in the trash when they saw that the images were mostly black. Despite the attempt at documention, the Firefall remained elusive in its ability to be captured.
As my goal of creating an exhibition based on existing documents was beginning to seem like an impossibility, my interest in this historic event blurred into an obsession, and I was left with only one option: I would have to recreate a full-scale Firefall to see it for myself. In 2008, on a blog pertaining to the history of Yosemite I posted a request for anyone with knowledge of how it was logistically realized to contact me. Several months later I received a reply from a man named Granville Pool, and in 2009 I flew to Northern California to interview him. In 1965, Granville, who was nineteen at the time, was hired as a bellboy at the Glacier Point Hotel. Eventually he was put in charge of the Firefall. “The circle of wood for the fire mound was five or six feet in diameter, and we built it up a foot high with more wood piled up in the middle,” he described. “By the time we were ready to push it, we had this great heap of really hot glowing embers.” Throughout our interview he taught me its history, as well as how to accurately recreate this manmade event.
Knowing that the Firefall couldn’t be recreated at Yosemite National Park, I began researching other locations throughout the United States where the ritual could be restaged. After consulting with Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Los Angeles, he recommended that I look into open-pit mines for their tall, steep cliffs. As opposed to tunneling into the earth, open-pit mines are a means for extracting useful minerals or rock found near the surface by digging deep, large holes into the ground. In the summer of 2011, I initiated a small test at an abandoned quarry in Ohio, though its cliffs—roughly sixty feet in height—were not as tall as I would have preferred. I also came to learn that water constantly seeps into an open pit, and if not continually pumped out it will become a lake with its cliffs underwater. If I wanted taller cliffs I would need to find an active quarry. After contacting close to a dozen open pit mines in the Northeast, LaFarge cement plant in Ravena, New York threw caution to the wind and decided to work with me.
As an artist I had never heard of nor taken part in a collaboration with the mining industry. Though it had its difficulties, there were moments when their contribution bordered on Herculean. For instance, the cliff I wanted to use had too gradual an angle to allow embers to be pushed over, so miners literally refaced the 300 foot cliff to make it steeper. Initially my plan was to film the execution of the Firefall in private, thereby creating a video document of an obsolete event. Instead, at the suggestion of the quarry manager, an audience was invited into the quarry to witness the event. Thus, a project that would have been executed solely for film cameras was transformed into a public spectacle similar to the original Yosemite Firefall. On a beautiful June night in 2012, a crowd of 400 miners, locals, and New York art-world folks were bussed into the mouth of the mammoth quarry. The addition of a high school marching band made the event feel strangely Fellini-esque. With the help of two assistants pushing the embers with long steel poles, as well as five camera people filming the entire event, we were able to stage the first Firefall in nearly half a century.
Were it not for the lack of primary-source documentation, I probably would have never embarked upon reenacting this event. I still believe that a composed collection of archival photographs would have made a great piece, but the distance in place and time from the original Firefall would have made it as much about nostalgia as the event itself. Seeing the first embers tumble over the quarry’s cliff, hearing the strange sound they made tinkling against the rocks, watching the wind blow the fire off course, and experiencing the eerie quietness that accompanied such a powerful visual effect helped reveal to me what my eleven photographs lacked: the unexpected.
ADAM FRELIN is an artist working in sculpture, photography, performance, and public events. He is an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University at Albany - SUNY, and lives in Troy, New York.