Some fire photographers may have a more intimate connection to the job than others. For North Jersey-based Peter Danzo, taking photos of fire scene is an outgrowth of his main gig as a deputy chief with the Hackensack (NJ) Fire Department. Chief Danzo took the time to give us his perspective on capturing images of fires and firefighters in his area.
FE: What got you started in fire photography?
PD: I always wanted to be a firefighter from a very young age and had a friend whose two brother-in-laws were volunteers. They would give me fire service magazines and I would be awed by the photos in them, so I started “chasing” my local fire department and took my first fire photos when I was just 15-years-old using a small 110 camera. I really became hooked when, at 16, I had my first photo published. My father drove me to the fire, which was out of town, and lent me his 35mm SLR to use.
FE: What kind of equipment do you use?
PD: Presently I use a Canon 50D DSLR with a 24-105 f4L lens, I also carry a 17-40 f4L for wide angle and a 70-200 f2.8L for long shots
FE: What have been some of more memorable jobs?
PD: The most memorable was the Collingswood Auction fire in Howell, New Jersey, in 1992, one of the most spectacular fires I ever shot. I actually was able to capture a fire tornado which formed above the building at the height of the fire. The Durham Woods gas pipe explosion in Edison, New Jersey, in 1994, that took out multiple garden apartment buildings. Most recently in Paterson, New Jersey, this past winter, while at the scene of a four-alarm fire involving two buildings, a resident reported another fire a couple blocks away. Another photographer and I walked to the scene with a couple of EMTs from the first fire and found a 2 1/2-story home with fire showing from a window on the first floor. Due to the first fire, with all city companies tied up and mutual aid still responding in, I was able to photograph the fire growing from what appeared to be a single-room fire to the building as well as the home next door, becoming fully involved in minutes before the first fire apparatus arrived.
FE: What’s unique about the area you cover–the place, the firefighters, the hazards, etc?
PD: I don’t know if I would say there is anything unique, but I am in a location that gives me a lot of opportunities. I have a lot of suburban areas, which provide the bread-and-butter frame dwelling fires, and I have several urban cities with mill buildings and factories as well as tightly clustered structures that lead to rapid fire spread and a lot of fire duty to photograph. I am also close to New York City, which provides me the opportunity to photograph the FDNY. The firefighters are great. Being a fellow firefighter helps me, as well. As for the hazards, some of the urban cities have high crime rates, and when going into those areas you need to always be on your guard.
FE: What have been some of your more memorable publications?
PD: Definitely my one and only cover on Fire Engineering. It was a photo taken in Yonkers, New York, of firefighters opening up the roof of a large four-story building. I can say I worked hard for that one. After taking in a fire in Orange, New Jersey, I headed to Yonkers where they had a five-alarm fire in a large H type occupied multiple dwelling. While making my way to the scene, I came upon this second fire, which also went to a fifth alarm. I was able to get on the roof of the adjacent building and get numerous photos of the roof operations which were underway.
FE: Any advice to aspiring fire photographers?
PD: Practice. I have been photographing fires for over 30 years and still learn a new trick here and there. Always be conscious of other photographers around you, but, more important, of the scene and the firefighters working. You never want to be known as the guy that gets in the way. If you are on a fire scene photographing the action, you are a guest and can be asked to leave at anytime, but if you stay out of the way and are cautious, you should not have any problems. Always make your photographs available to the department; I make it a habit to burn a CD of the photos I took and get it to the chief of the department as soon as possible after the fire. It not only may help them with their investigation, critique, and training, but it will get your work recognized.
MORE PETER DANZO
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