For my senior thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I spent a year photographing the Baltimore City Fire Department. I got permission from the chief of the department at the time, Peter J. O’Conner, through a combination of luck and nerve—I walked into headquarters, knocked on his door, and asked him. O’Conner took me down the hall to the office of his public information officer, Patrick Flynn. All he said was, “He wants to photograph the department. Give him some gear and have him sign a waiver.” This was 1981, the very end of the era when civilians would even be considered to ride on fire apparatus. The quartermaster issued me a full set of turnout gear—boots, pants, jacket and helmet. Flynn’s final words of advice: “Don’t get killed.” I shot thousands of photographs, often spending nights in firehouses all over Baltimore. I breezed through my thesis thanks to my advisers on the project, Richard Kirstel and Lois Hennessey—both on the faculty of MICA. It was the centerpiece of my four years there. While the thesis always remained separate, I picked up a partner along the way, fellow photographer Frank Rehak. He had been photographing firehouses with his 4”x5” view camera and we joined forces envisioning a larger photographic portrait of the department. In January of 1983 we installed a show of our photographs in both galleries of Baltimore City Hall, and in 1987 we published everything in a book, “In Service . . . A Photographic Documentary of the Baltimore City Fire Department.” Michael Anft, a City Paper reporter, came on board to write a moving text of firehouse life. What follow are photos from my thesis. They are of Baltimore City Firefighters, some of the bravest and most committed individuals I have ever known. (Jim Burger) Burger's show of the work, Second Alarm. Engine 1, Truck 11
, opens at MICA on Oct. 13.