Jeff Frost has been gaining some notoriety for his heart stopping time-lapse images of the California wildfires, in which thousands of stacked images bring to life the final moments of structures and forests. For the past two record-breaking fire seasons in drought-parched California, Frost has been on the front lines alongside firefighters. His work captures in intense detail a perspective most news cameras won’t dare tread near. Much of this footage is slated for a film project, but he offers daily sneak peaks behind the smoke via his Instagram page.
But Frost is much more than just a photojournalist with a great eye and severely lacking fear response. His surreal and beautiful film work combines multiple mediums, using abstraction to explore the concept that creation and destruction may be the same thing. Along the way he has racked up piles of awards, and he’s slated for a TED talk next month. We caught up with him while he was camped at the 100 square mile Valley Fire, which destroyed much of a town last week.
Stay tuned this weekend as Jeff takes over our own Instagram account, @thedailybeast, with some of his incredile imagery.
So first of all, how would you describe what you do? You’re so much more than just a photographer.
My whole life has turned into one art making adventure after another. I chase down wildfires, riots, stars, and abandoned structures. I paint optical illusions on walls. I make reverse light paintings. I record all of this with hundreds of thousands of photographs and then combine it into short films, for which I also create the soundtracks. The only way any of that will make any sense is to see it for yourself.
How do you decide on the projects you do, and how do you get funding?
I don’t wait, even a little, for funding. In school when I had less than $20 in my bank account I would convince classmates in the photography program to take me out to the desolate Salton Sea on the bottom edge of California. It’s three hours south of LA somewhat near the Coachella Music Festival. I told them I’d show them amazing places and make sure they weren’t [insert paranoid city person fantasy here] while out in the desert.I made my entire first film, Flawed Symmetry of Prediction with a single camera and lens, which were both purchased by gaming financial aid.Even now, I just start the task of doing and figure out the rest as I go along. All of my art films and projects, including the two I’m working on now, are self-funded; usually through commercial commissions. The interesting thing there is the commercial commissions I’ve been getting and the films I’m making sometimes become one and the same. I wind up convincing interested parties to fund my films, in other words. I don’t change what I’m doing one iota, and in exchange they get to use parts of what I make in what they’re doing, such as concert or music videos.
What brought you to the California wildfires?
Climate change, ultimately. I see this as the issue of this generation of humans; it’s make or break. Like all species on this planet that overpopulate we are facing mass extinction. Our addiction crush, technology, won’t save us if we don’t get to the business of utilizing it. It’s going to take the whole world to fix this one: liberal, conservative, independents, Chinese, Indian, politicians, corporations, etc.Maybe people on the left and right can’t agree on what’s causing global warming, but they all want to breathe clear air and have a good life for their children (which is the same thing the people in China, India and everywhere else want too – if you’re doubtful of that look up the Chinese documentary Under the Dome). It’s going to take forgetting about the reasons why, focusing on common ground, treating each other with a little respect, and getting everyone on board with simply making our home a nice place to be. We have to get this done. We can’t rely on politicians, but they need to help too.
Are what we see on Instagram just pieces of a much larger project? What is your vision for that?
They are, yes. My vision was to make two films that directly contradict each other simultaneously, because apparently I’m interested in driving myself fucking nuts (it’s working). California on Fire (working title) examines some of the consequences of our modern lifestyle through the exacerbated effects of climate change on fires. Circuit Board Species celebrates said technology.
You’ve been on site for a number of fires. How do you get access? What is going through your head as you shoot / set up to shoot?
I’ve taken basic firefighting courses, purchased all sorts of safety gear, and have a press pass. It took months of prep work and research just to begin.
Any close calls?
Way more than I’d like to admit this year. I wrote one out in blog form for Huffington Post, but two nights ago I watched as half the town of Middle Town, CA burned to the ground. Every minute of that night was touch and go. Entire apartment complexes and houses were incinerated in minutes right in front of me. Propane tanks were exploding all over town; you could feel it vibrate through the ground. Nearly every house that went up in flames started popping. I didn’t recognize the sound at first, but many people have massive amounts of ammo in their homes. When they burn it all goes off. Firefighters had to duck behind trucks while trying to avoid stray bullets. It was the craziest night of my life on many levels.
Is there something in particular that you experience when you’re shooting these fires that you haven’t elsewhere, danger aside?
Where you’re brushing up against death and destruction, including the possibility of your own, that often it changes you. Far fewer fucks are given.
What kind of gear are you carrying for this stuff? Do you have a crew? Car? On foot?
I have no crew and a mountain of gear. Numerous cameras and motion control systems, safety equipment, camping gear, emergency gear such as a generator and tools, etc. I pile all of this into my truck, which I often sleep in while still inside the fire zone. In fact, I’m watching the Valley Fire out my front windshield while doing this interview. During the summer months I live on the road and out of my vehicle.
Has Instagram informed or influenced your work?
When you aren’t chasing fire, what do you do?
I mentioned the other film I’m making, Circuit Board Species. I’ve been shooting that and the fire film for nearly two years now. In a few weeks I’m going to be flown to Switzerland to give a TED talk at CERN. I will certainly be the least qualified person in the room academically, so I’ll have to make up for it by telling PhD particle physicists about my experiences exploring meth houses in the desert. They got nothing on me there.