Wildfire and Frezno

One in ten Americans lives in California, but nearly everyone everywhere equates it with big dreams, infinite possibility, and endless promise. And catastrophe: earthquakes, fires, human lives lost or mislaid. Two recent volumes of photography explore these twin takes on the Golden State, and Wildfire, Sasha Bezzubov’s collection of images taken in the aftermath of several recent California wildfires, explores the latter one. Artful and detached, it pictures natural destruction as a great equalizer, as fires—more and bigger ones every year—gobble up million-dollar homes, cars, and the detritus of modern life at the “urban-woodland interface.” It’s a grim tour, starting with Bill McKibben’s ominous introduction linking the fires with climate change. One can’t help but equate the collapsed structures and burned-out cars with their former occupants’ dreams and desires reduced to ashes.
 

And yet: Ash in Spanish is fresno. And Frezno (as photographer Tony Stamolis colloquially spells it), is an unblinking look at one of California’s most unglamorous, dangerous, and demographically undesirable cities. There’s grimness here, too—empty swimming pools, vacant stores, acute suburban decay and poverty—but Frezno feels oddly optimistic, its tattooed subjects drinking, skating, sleeping, and hanging out with a touch of defiance and vigor that offsets their hollow-eyed ennui. Splashes of color (a string of balloons stuck in a wire, a lemon-yellow low-rider) add cheerful grace notes, and grungy glimpses of optimism (a topiary trimmed like a rabbit) make you realize that folks in Fresno are doing their best to survive. Even the photographer’s mom, barefoot and ironing an American flag in her kitchen, looks content. In a state known for big dreams, small ones are alive and kicking in Frezno. COLIN BERRY

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