Sometime in the early 1990s, I sat in a barbershop while my brother’s hair was trimmed and read a Guideposts. As with all barbershop and waiting room magazine selections, the Guideposts were outdated and incomplete, a scattershot of the 1980s.
Earlier that year, from my sleeping bag pitched on a friend’s living room floor, I watched “The Towering Inferno.” I saw the skyscraper catch fire. Wonderment turned to fear as a family trapped in their room soaked towels in water from the sink in an attempt to escape the blaze. Several floors below, a posh party was in full swing. It was the partygoers' ignorant bliss that frightened me.
Unbeknownst to me, the roof over my head could be consumed. What we believe to be true—i.e., that the struts and beams supporting the weight above us are in fact solid and weight bearing—could come down at any minute.
To sate my fear, my parents bought a fire ladder that could be unrolled and hooked to a windowsill. On the front of the box a photograph showed a girl, her brother, and mother calmly descending the metal rungs as bright orange flames snapped from the window they had just escaped. When I woke up in the middle of the night, sure that I smelled smoke or heard the distant crackle of a fire, I would look at the picture on the box—the calm face of the girl in the footed pajamas, the fire stilled by the camera’s shutter.
I read about Bud Ward’s miracle photograph in the barbershop that year, the year my fear of fire was beginning to take shape.
Bud Ward, a retired New Jersey fireman, took several photographs of a burning shed. When he developed the film, he was amazed to discover Jesus in the flames. People flocked to the shed, praying and taking home shards of burnt wood.
Guideposts included the photograph.
I was too young to know much of modern-day miracles, but I could recount most of the biblical miracles. Water from stone, loaves and fishes, parting seas, plagues and manna. The veil between the world I knew and the miraculous was thin.
But I couldn’t see Jesus in the flames; I could only see the fire. In the black and white photograph, the fire is a pure white light. Bare tree branches jag through the image as if they could escape. The miracle to me was not the figure, but the fire’s slow destruction—flames billow out of the doorway and surround the roof in a halo of light. In the photograph, the shack, despite the fire and heat and smoke, is still standing.
Perhaps, if the photo was taken with a better exposure, the miraculous Jesus would return to the flames. If the distinction between black and white was more decisive, the photograph would be evidence of nothing but a fire and a roof withstanding, if only for a little while longer, the inferno.
Now, when I am alone in the darkroom agitating the developer and waiting for the photographic image to burn into the paper, I always think of Bud’s photograph. As the blacks darken and the lights pull forward, I look for a figure to appear. A Jesus in the threshold, a figure present for the burn before the collapse.