The Big Fire

One evening in mid-town Manhattan, a professional photographer in his third-floor apartment was hunched over a light table editing some pictures. A fire truck went by with siren blaring. Because sirens are usual in New York, he barely noticed. Within two minutes, however, another raced by his window, then a third, and a fourth.

Each time, he noticed the sirens didn’t drift away but, instead, stopped suddenly a few seconds after they had passed. Instinctively, he grabbed his jacket and camera, stuffed film into his pockets, and took to the stairway two steps at a time. Once on the sidewalk, he half ran in the direction the trucks had been going.

Three blocks away and around the corner, he saw the flashing red lights. Behind them was a huge church, one corner already wrapped in swirling flame and a cloud of smoke that became larger every second. He edged as close as he could to the action and began making pictures.

Despite several streams of water, the fire spread faster, becoming larger and hotter. Soon, the main part of the sanctuary was aflame. Firemen, their sweaty faces already stained with smoke, raced between locations, scrambled up ladder trucks, pulled at hoses, and barked commands in an attempt to control the raging inferno. The photographer kept shooting while looking for different angles.

What the firemen and onlookers feared most began to happen. They gasped as the church’s huge stained glass windows, no longer able to resist the heat, buckled, folded outwardly as if in slow motion, and broke into a million pieces as they hit the sidewalk below.

In the meantime, the steeple, its underpinnings furiously afire, leaned, then toppled into the bowels of the inferno.

Within an hour, it was all over except for wetting down the debris, a task that would last throughout the night. The photographer, physically spent and emotionally drained, stepped carefully around huge pools of water dirtied by black ashes and walked slowly and thoughtfully back to his apartment. That’s when he decided to convert the best of his pictures into a presentation with a soundtrack.

Fast forward a few months. He’s a speaker at a conference at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, with about 150 attendees, including some of the world’s most accomplished photographers, journalists, and art directors. After being introduced, the photographer makes a few remarks but doesn’t reveal what they are about to see.

The room is darkened and the presentation begins. Many of those watching are hardened professionals who have seen, made, and worked with thousands of images showing the horrors of war, people dying of starvation, ravages brought about by natural disasters, and man’s inhuman acts against themselves. Yet, no one is prepared for what is being unveiled to them — the fiery destruction of not just a building, but a magnificent structure built for those worshipping and offering prayer to Almighty God.

Then it’s all over, all eight minutes of it. The lights in the room are turned on. No one is moving. There’s complete silence. Everyone is shedding tears. Some, with heads bowed, are crying.

The photographer quietly returns to the lectern, but remains silent. He’s sympathetic because what’s happening in this room filled with his contemporaries matches the reaction he’d already witnessed back in New York with three much smaller groups.

Then in a quiet voice, he explains.

Naturally, he says, for a soundtrack, he expected to be selecting the usual religious or classical music to match feelings of sorrow and despair at the sight of a beautiful church being destroyed.

Then feeling a sudden urge to probe the unknown, he rejected the usual and chose, instead, foot stomping and finger thumping jazz.

He never expected the result, the outbreak of a vicious war inside the viewer’s brain caused by what was being seen doing battle with what was being heard. The strength of those opposing forces was so closely matched that they fought to a draw.

In only eight minutes, everyone in the room became so exhausted and distraught by the bitter conflict that their emotions spiraled out of control. The photographer said he’s so disturbed by how the audience reacted that he likely will never show the presentation again.

I appreciated that judgement because I was one of those who cried.

Now, and many years later, I continue to respect the magnificent yet unleashed power that sprang from such a simple but illogical decision of choosing the wrong music for the right reason.