La grande immagine: a brilliant spark amid the darkness

Rinko Kawauchi began taking pictures of fireworks when she was living alone in Tokyo in 1997. Al tempo, she was spending her days working out what kind of photographer she wanted to be, a process she recalls as “agonising trial and repetition”. Often in the evenings she would find firework displays, quale, lei dice, provided her “with a sort of healing… Alongside people of all ages, I would look up at the sky and marvel at the beautiful sparks. In an instant they would vanish – and so would we return to our own daily lives. In a chaotic world, such moments felt like salvation: an affirmation of being alive.”

Her images from that time are included in a group exhibition devoted to the broad theme of fire, involving finalists for this year’s Prix Pictet at the V&UN. Many of the pictures in the show focus on awful incendiary power: the inferno and aftermath of forest fires that are an ever more common feature of the warming planet and the charred devastation that fire can bring to environments and to communities. Kawauchi’s photographs provide little epiphanies of human joy in that context.

This one looks almost medieval in its collective engagement with the heavens. La folla, bathed in milky blue light, fixes its attention on the sudden, human-made star of wonder in the east. The spectacle appears hardly dulled by familiarity, as if the singular brilliance above the horizon, with its trail of fire, were a cosmic event or a portent. “I always keep poeticism in mind during my image-making process,” Kawauchi says. Her firework pictures, far from a night-time distraction, influenced her subsequent work, which has been all about capturing the ways in which everyday experience is sometimes flooded with surprising and ephemeral light.

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