Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo
Photograph by Noah Berger, AP Photo

They capture the apocalyptic skies

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

The apocalyptic skies across Northern California are just the latest sign of California’s struggles.

“I’ve never seen a fire forecast this bad and this large … it looks dire,” photographer Stuart Palley wrote to his photo editor this week. (Above, a hillside ablaze next to the Bidwell Bar Bridge in Oroville.)

And on Wednesday, as the skies grew strange, photography best told this story. (Below, Palley’s image of the Bear Fires near Oroville and the Plumas National Forest.)

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For photo editor Dominque Hildebrand, who covers the environment, it was important to make clear that this event was more than a freak occurrence. She pulled strong images by Gabrielle Lurie (below) and Scott Strazzante that “showcased both the normalcy of daily life and the foreboding impacts of climate change."

And Dominique included a few images that “just really speak to the power and scale of the fires.” Below, smoke from the wildfires bathes Sausalito’s Marin Headlands in a deep red glow as Thomas Spratley (right) and Paulo Santos visit.

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As citizens marveled at the orange skies overhead, Stuart was heading north to the frontlines—and the fast-moving Berry Creek fire (below). Not only has Stuart spent the past eight years documenting California’s increasingly severe wildfires—more than 100 fires by his count. He’s also a qualified base-level wildland firefighter. He’s witnessed the destruction, followed by rebuilding and more and more Californians moving into fire-prone and climate-vulnerable areas. The same patterns have followed in hard-hit Oregon and Washington State.

On a check-in call, Stuart said he was making a quick stop to pick up a chainsaw in case of downed trees. Dominique emphasized the importance of working with such a pro: “He can read the fire forecast charts. He knows what he needs to be safe. And he is quick on his feet to adapt and adjust.”

Dominque’s biggest takeaway, after seeing the images of California’s biggest single wildfire, as well as other windswept blazes that have charred more than 2.5 million acres in the state. “How compounding our impact—human impact—on the planet is,” she wrote. “I worry about the photographers’ safety—protecting them from COVID-19, heat stress, air pollution, and fires all at once feels a bit wild.”

Wildfires are just a part of the job. Rising sea levels. Increasing hurricanes. Worsening air pollution. As the planet warms, we need photography more than ever to give insight to the ways in which the Earth is changing our lives.

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Today in a minute

If Hands Could Speak: That’s the name of a powerful and haunting collection of images by photographer Ashima Yadava. She understood that the pandemic would keep people home, and that the incidence of domestic violence would rise. She had used images of hands alone for her study of domestic violence in the South Asian community in the Bay Area; she has returned to hands for her latest work, a photographic representation of “Black Lives Matter” in American Sign Language. “Hands,” she tells Mother Jones, “are in equal part tools of oppression and agents of resilience and revolutionary change.”

It was 19 years ago today: The defining moment of U.S. history early this century was the coordinated 9/11 airborne terror attacks in New York, Greater Washington, D.C., and rural Pennsylvania. Here are images from the tragedy, which killed nearly 3,000 people, prompted the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and radically tightened airport security.

The Falling Man: Few news outlets published the 9/11 image by AP photographer Richard Drew of one person who jumped to his death from the a stricken skyscraper. “It’s just this quiet picture of this man falling. But people can identify with it a lot,” Drew told WYNC a decade later. “That they may have to face it some time—or had to face it that day at the World Trade Center—what would they do?”

A change: After 150 years of white stewardship of its Native American collection, the Metropolitan Museum of New York has hired its first full-time Native American curator. Patricia Marroquin Norby comes to the museum from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, where she was senior executive and assistant director. She is of Purépecha heritage, an Indigenous population that primarily lives in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

Your Instagram of the day

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Who wants ice cream? Here’s photographer Kris Graves’s images of Mister Softee on a hot late summer night in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria Park. Graves was raised around Queens and returned after graduating from college in 2004. “Most of my work has focused on the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in western Queens, which lies one stop from Manhattan on every subway line and is growing twice as fast as any other neighborhood within New York City,” Graves says.

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The big takeaway

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Look at that mug! Rare photos of cheetahs in the snow are irresistible, at least to many of our readers, who have made this feature one of the week’s most popular. How did photographer Kirsten Frost get this shot on a South African wildlife reserve? It followed two days of tracking a radio-collared female cheetah amid worsening weather. “I realized this was a moment few have ever experienced and a moment in nature I’ll never forget,” Frost tells Nat Geo. See more of his photos here.

In a few words

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On Mondays, Debra Adams Simmons covers the latest in history. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Victoria Jaggard on science, George Stone on travel, and Rachael Bale on animal and wildlife news.

The last glimpse

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Crystal caves: Back in 1914, National Geographic published this image, taken with flashlights from a cave in the mining town of Santa Rosalia in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. These men are surrounded by calcite crystals as they explore the mine, says Sara Manco, our senior photo archivist. “I love the rich texture of the crystals,” Manco says, “and how it seems as though one can climb on the crystals without breaking any.”

From the archives: 30 mesmerizing vintage photographs

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Other contributions this week came from Kimberly Pecoraro, Gretchen Ortega, Amanda Williams-Bryant, and Maura Friedman. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!