2 photos: sheet music fragment with scorch marks on charred ground; page fragment with Japanese characters and color medieval illustration of people sitting in fountain
Left: The music for “California Dreamin’. ” Right: A Japanese text about the fountain of youth. (Benjamin Rasmussen)

An American Community in 10 Fragments

How one photographer documented the aftermath of Colorado’s Marshall Fire

At daybreak on New Year’s Eve, the photographer Benjamin Rasmussen arrived at the still-smoldering Marshall Fire, in the suburban communities of Superior and Louisville, Colorado. The burned area, which encompassed more than 1,000 homes, remained barricaded, so Rasmussen stayed at a distance, letting worried residents use his camera’s zoom lens to try to make out whether their houses were still standing.

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Rasmussen has photographed sites of tragedy before, and notes the challenge of capturing these events with texture and specificity, especially as climate-related disasters have become commonplace. “You realize that, visually, it’s really hard to differentiate one event from the next,” he told me.

Later in the day, as he followed locals back into their neighborhoods, he noticed scraps of paper that had blown from houses and landed, singed, several feet or even blocks from their points of origin.

scorched fragment of page on charred ground
2 photos: scorched fragments of book pages on asphalt and charred ground
Top: a U.S.-history textbook. Bottom: Instructions for how to build a paper airplane; information on choosing a puppy.

“For the most part,” Rasmussen said, the area had “sort of cookie-cutter homes, very suburban.” But the burned pages he found—featuring lines from the Torah, an announcement about the 1975–76 Junior Miss Majorette, a Japanese text about the fountain of youth—offered intimate, if fractured, peeks at a community that was “more complex and broad and diverse than I would have assumed.”

photo of a scorched page on charred grass
photo of a scorched page on charred grass
Top: A computer-science textbook. Bottom: Marketing material for the Jaguar E-Type.

While a picture of a person crying next to a house on fire is evocative, he told me, it can create distance between the viewer and the subject—the image is both too familiar and, in a way, too general. By photographing these idiosyncratic ruins instead of a more traditional scene, Rasmussen prompts us to look more closely.

2 photos: scorched pages from books on grass and leaves
scorched paper fragment with English and Hebrew writing
Top: Scenes from the “L.A. at Last!” episode of I Love Lucy; an announcement about the 1975–76 Junior Miss Majorette. Bottom: Lines from the Torah.

His series makes a collection of the scattered fragments, an accidental archive of disintegration marking the advent of a new year.

This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “Paper Trail.”