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Fire

by Paul Hunwick .

The clock has stopped at 8.52pm signaling a moment frozen in time. A bowl of fruit is shrouded in soot; a bottle of mineral water stands on a bedside table never to be drunk; and a calendar destined never to make it past February hangs on the wall.

It's unlikely you'll have ever heard of him, but Brian Dowling is an important character in British fashion photography. Christian Dior campaigns, the i-D portrait that launched Sophie Dahl's career and countless Vogue covers have passed through his hands. If Kate Moss were ever to develop a wrinkle (seemingly impossible, I know) he'd spot it long before Anna Wintour. Dowling, you see, is the photographic printer to whom the kings of fashion photography turn when they want the best.

A trained photographer himself, Dowling took on an emotionally demanding task when he photographed the fire-damaged home of his mother. At around 8pm on February 12th 2000, seventy-four year old Doris Dowling and her friend Bella were settling down in her small East London flat to watch Blind Date. A cosy pursuit enjoyed by millions every weekend. Brian was watching the telly in his own home with the aid of a sausage sandwich when he received a telephone call: 'Brian, the telly's on fire,' cried Doris. The sandwich never reached his lips.

Although only two minutes away, by the time Brian arrived at the flat he could see flames pouring out of the window. He found his mother sitting on the steps outside her door in tears and a state of shock. In the confusion, it took several minutes to establish that her friend had managed to leave the flat too.

The TV set - which was less than three years old - had caught fire, then exploded showering the room with glass and throwing Mrs Dowling and her friend into a state of panic. The fire brigade arrived quickly and extinguished the fire. But the effect of that hour-long period on their lives was quite devastating.

The sitting room was gutted and every other room ravaged. Smoke and soot had crept into every crevice. Clothes and photographs were ruined, electrical goods rendered too dangerous to be used again and precious mementoes damaged beyond recognition. This last part was especially hard for Mrs Downling who had lost her husband three years before, shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary. When Brian later tried to salvage the anniversary plate he had bought for his parents, it shattered in his hands as he picked it up. A cruel blow to a woman who, for years, had dutifully unplugged every electrical item each night before retiring to bed.

The fire officers advised Brian to empty the flat of any valuables. It seems that burnt-out windows attract thieves, who suspect the occupants may have left their home unsecured in the dash to escape. Brian took away with him not much more than a few pictures and a crucifix that had been passed onto his mother by his grandmother.

He felt it was important to make a personal record of the event - an idea which was to prove particularly prudent when it came to settling a contentious insurance claim. Brian shot these images less than twenty-four hours after the fire occurred. As if the emotional strain of photographing your mother's wrecked home wasn't enough, practicalities were against him. After a fire, the remaining soot gets into your lungs making breaking uncomfortable and the stench of burning lurks for days as a constant sensory reminder. With no light (the electricity supply had been switched off and soot-stained windows allow almost no light through) Brian was quite literally shooting in the dark. Soot even crept into his camera rendering it useless.

What Brian emerged with was a set of images that capture a private and monumental moment. A home has a life of its own - here you can see that ending. The clock has stopped at 8.52pm signaling a moment frozen in time. A bowl of fruit is shrouded in soot; a bottle of mineral water stands on a bedside table never to be drunk; and a calendar destined never to make it past February hangs on the wall. All chilling reminders of the end of this home.

It was two months before Brian dared show these images to his mother. When he did, she wept. Ten months later, Mrs Dowling had returned to her flat. New kitchen, new bathroom, new carpets, new bed, fresh fruit. Same old crucifix.

Paul Hunwick is a journalist writing about design, fashion and pop culture.