Tapia’s photos capture bravery
Posted Oct. 31, 2008
Rafael Anguiano
Being one of the first people to document the deployment of aluminum fire shelters in a live fire situation, Karen Tapia, staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times, made an iconic photograph at the Santiago Canyon fire in Orange County in October 2007. Tapia was present for a reception at an exhibition of her photographs, “Sheltered,” Thursday in the Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography. There were also two firefighters who spoke at the reception of their experience.

Blazes and heroics are the themes of photojournalist Karen Tapia’s art exhibit “Sheltered,” which is being shown at the Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography.

A reception held on Oct. 23 chronicled the 12 firefighters’ moment of terror experience dealing with the Santiago Fire and the way that Tapia photographed the situation for the Los Angeles Times.

Tapia expressed her appreciation about the reception. “I thought it was really nice,” Tapia said. “I appreciated the turnout from my colleagues.”

“It was a pretty nice opening,” Gallery Director Dion Johnson said. “The event was well attended.”

Gallery guests are able to listen to sound clips from 911 dispatchers and hear Tapia’s commentary as they view the photographs.

The sound and visual experience enables visitors to journey through the firefighters’ and Tapia’s experience with the blaze.

“It makes it feel like it is happening in their presence and brings a sense of urgency to the photographs,” Johnson said about the audio tracks.

Along with friends and family, the reception also featured two firefighters who were also the center stage of reception attendees attention.

The firefighters spoke to the guests about the photographs and their experience.

The two firefighters presence added to the impact of the evening.

“Their support and enthusiasm to Karen’s work was impressive and brought a level of intimacy to the show,” Johnson said.

Charles Bentley, director of public relations, former ULV classmate with Tapia and a reception attendee, stated that he viewed some of Tapia's work at a ULV Society of Profes­sional Journalists presentation last December.

“It was fantastic,” Bentley said. “To be able to see the pictures in front of you was so powerful.”

Guests said they were awed seeing the work by Tapia. Many cited the realism to be the biggest focus of the gallery.

“The work itself is really powerful and gives us a closeness and clarity to it all,” Johnson said.

Johnson particularly liked the photographs that started the sequence in the gallery because it showed “the anticipation for the challenge and damage that lay ahead.”

“Karen is utterly wrapped up in the stories she photographs,” Gary Colby, professor of photography, said.

Tapia, a 1983 bachelor of art’s alumna of ULV, was the LA Times photographer on assignment who covered the Santiago fire, an arson caused fire near Irvine.

Tapia stated that the name “Sheltered” was given to the gallery exhibit because of the covering mechanism the firefighters carried with them to provide a safe haven in dangerous situations.

“When they deployed the shelters, they were sheltered from harm,” Tapia said.

She said her favorite photograph, which was chosen for print, received several accolades, including the Associated Press Photo of the Month and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The photograph displays the firefighters inside their deployed “shelters,” while the fire blazes ominously around them.

“Karen is a glowing example of what it means to be a concerned photographer,” Colby said.

Tapia explained that the photograph captured more than just awards.

“No one had ever captured that on film that I know of,” Tapia said.

Bentley also believed that the most impacting photographs in the gallery were with the firefighters deploying their shelters.

“The images speak so powerfully and show an intense story that speaks to you,” Bentley said.

At the end of the reception, it seems everyone was touched by Tapia's work.

“Karen's show was one of the best narrative exhibitions I have seen,” Johnson said. “It's not so much individual photographs as much as it is one grand sequence.”

Tapia’s gallery exhibit will be open until Dec. 5.

Jonathan Smith can be reached at jonathan.smith@laverne.edu.

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