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Firefighting photographer talks about ‘Shooting Fire’ at the Mercer

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STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON 
For Digital First Media

Larry Browne, a volunteer with Doylestown Fire Company No. 1, has been “shooting fire” for almost three decades — he uses his camera to capture the visual details of fire scenes. Browne, of Doylestown, will discuss and show more than 100 photos during “Shooting Fire: Memories of 30 Years as A Fire Scene Photographer” on May 2 at the Mercer Museum.
He became enthralled with firefighting photos when he was a kid growing up in the Bronx. There, he read WNYF Magazine, a NYC Fire Department publication, and was amazed at the drama in the photos. Once grown up, Browne worked as a newspaper photographer in Philadelphia and captured many images of fire scenes. Why focus on something so dangerous?
“Adrenaline has something to do with it,” he said.
But along the way, his job became more than an artistic and occupational rush.
“I also formed some very strong friendships with guys I met in the Philly Fire Department,” he said.
Those friendships helped push him to become a volunteer firefighter himself, first in Rockledge, Montgomery County, and then in Doylestown, where he lives now. His primary role is photographer, though he is trained as a firefighter. That training helped him be an even better picture taker.
“The more I’ve learned, the better I’ve become,” he said. “I have a better idea of fire behavior, where people are going to be, how to keep myself safe.”
That’s important, since fire scenes are “pretty dynamic and inherently dangerous,” he said.

The scene at a dwelling fire on Court Street in Doylestown Borough, October 1999. The first fire Browne shot for Doylestown Fire Co.  Photo courtesy of Larry Browne

The scene at a dwelling fire on Court Street in Doylestown Borough, October 1999. The first fire Browne shot for Doylestown Fire Co.
Photo courtesy of Larry Browne

His photos can be used as educational and training tools for others, but they teach him things, too.
“When I show them to people, I learn stuff from them, like when chief officers tell me what they were thinking,” he said.
Browne said there’s another important reason to take fire photos: to preserve history.
“Tradition is important to us — being able to show people tangible evidence of how far the organization goes back, the things they did,” he said.
The most important part for Browne is the people, especially since they risk their lives (and some of the subjects he captured have later died in the line of duty).
“I try to get the personal aspect as much as possible,” he said. “Fires don’t go out without the people.”
Telling as many fire service stories matters — through images of fire scenes, firehouse events, and headshots of the people who work for each organization. Browne hopes his talk, as well as Mercer’s exhibit “To Save Our Fellow Citizens: Volunteer Firefighting, 1800-1875” (with more than 175 historical artifacts, including tools, parade regalia, apparel, artwork, photographs, fire engines, fire equipment, and other unique items from the Museum’s permanent collection), will enlighten people about the long history of service and the long-lasting camaraderie in the fire service ranks.
“Pictures are a record of the thing that happened,” he said. “Whether it happened a couple of days ago or 100 years ago, it’s an important part of the historical record.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Shooting Fire: Memories of 30 Years as A Fire Scene Photographer” with Larry Browne
When: 2-3 p.m. May 2
Where: Mercer Museum, 84 South Pine St., Doylestown, PA
Cost: Included in museum admission: $14; seniors age 65 and older $12; children ages 6-17 $8; free for ages 5 and younger.
Info.: Call (215) 345-0210 or visit www.mercermuseum.org
Note: “To Save Our Fellow Citizens: Volunteer Firefighting, 1800-1875” runs April 25 through Sept. 7

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Mercer Museum: “To Save Our Fellow Citizens: Volunteer Firefighting, 1800-1875” goes on display April 25-Sept. 7. Objects on view include an early hand-powered engine and a hose carriage, fire helmets and parade hats, tools, models, badges, speaking trumpets, original prints and paintings, manuscript materials, and photographs.  Interactive exhibit experiences include “Sound the Alarm,” which lets visitors try communicating the locations of fires using the firefighters’ bell code system from the early 1800s, and the board game “Race to the Fire,” where players compete to see who can be the first on the scene of a fire.  A children’s play area lets kids try out firefighter clothing, climb on a play fire engine and use a modern fire hose and nozzle for pretend fire fighting. Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for youths 6-17. The Mercer Museum is at Pine and Ashland streets, Doylestown. Call (215) 345-0210 or visit www.mercermuseum.org.

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