MERIDEN — Michael Quinn is an attorney, a state representative and the city’s former corporation counsel, but what he loves to do, as much as anything else, is take pictures of fires.
Every night, the 53-year-old city resident goes to bed with his camera, a Nikon D-750, by the back door or in his car, with his favorite lens, a 28-300 mm zoom. It is at the ready in case an alarm sounds and he has to rush out to shoot photos of city firefighters handling emergencies. He listens to Meriden Fire Department dispatchers on the scanner all the time and feels his adrenaline climb every time the multi-toned signal indicating a fire goes off.
“We call ourselves fire photographers,” Quinn said. “There are some that only take pictures of apparatus. There are some that only take pictures of fires and I am in the middle. I do both.”
Quinn got into the hobby partly because, as a child, he loved the old 1970s TV show “Emergency” starring Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe, whom he met years ago. As a fire photographer, Quinn helps city firefighters document their procedures at fire scenes. His photographs are valuable parts of the department’s post-mortem analysis, act as evidence in civil or criminal proceedings, helps the department publicize its work and train firefighters, and assists Fire Chief Ken Morgan in explaining to city leaders how firefighters handle given events.
“He can pick up stuff in pictures that we don’t typically get to see,” Morgan said. “A good thing that is inherent to Mike is that as a lawyer, he knows that what he does could eventually become part of a court case.”
Perhaps most important, Quinn knows how to get good pictures without interfering with firefighters, Morgan said. Quinn does this by doing frequent ride-alongs with firefighters and studying their procedures.
“His biggest challenge is knowing that line that he can’t cross. We have had numerous other photographers that we have had to talk to about this, but he usually manages to find a way to get good pictures without getting in our way. You don’t want to do anything that would slow us down,” Morgan said.
Situational awareness is a big part of Quinn’s work as a photographer, said Morgan and Glenn Duda, president of the 120-member Connecticut Fire Photographers Association. Quinn joined the group in 2009 and was elected to be its vice president in 2011.
“Mike is the type of guy who taught himself photography and he joined the organization to do just that. He has come a long way in a lot of people’s eyes. He has become a very respected photographer in the city of Meriden,” Duda said. “It is his technique. He is not your conventional photographer. He has a good eye. He looks for the action and he captures it pretty well.”
Quinn approaches fires with an eye toward several things. Where are the hose lines? Where are the overhead utility wires? Are all the firefighters deployed? How can he get close enough to them to get a good picture, but not so close as to hazard his safety?
“We are able to be an extra set of eyes and ears on a scene in addition to the firefighters and commanders,” Duda said. “We gain the trust of the firefighters.”
Good fire photographs have constant elements. Lots of visible flames, strong facial expressions of firefighters, a sense of scale sharp enough to illustrate the size of a building or fire scene, and a minimum of smoke are all things that make for good photos, Quinn said.
A professional-grade camera, such as his Nikon, helps in low light conditions at night. The camera does an exceptionally good job of capturing the orange and red hues of fires and the blue or red flashing strobe lights on vehicles. His zoom lens helps him get close pictures without getting too close himself.
Photography has constant frustrations, too. The first look at a good photo feels like Christmas morning. The first sight of a bad one, or a near-miss, is a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking.
“You don’t always get the cooperation of the fire to get enough flames to make a good picture,” Quinn said. “If there is too much smoke in the picture, it can really obscure what you are taking a picture of.”
There is also a certain etiquette among fire photographers, Quinn said. He generally avoids pictures of the victims of fires, feeling that capturing them as they suffer the loss of home or loved ones is an invasion of privacy.
Fire photographers also sometimes put down their cameras to help firefighters, Duda said.
Many fire photographers sell their pictures to firefighters, but not Quinn. He typically emails the best of his pictures to Morgan, who distributes them as needed, Morgan said. Quinn said he does the work as a hobby, not to make money.
As a representative of the 82nd District — which includes Meriden, Middlefield and Rockfall — and a partner at Mahon, Quinn and Mahon of Meriden, Quinn manages to stay busy shooting pictures without compromising his other responsibilities, he said.
“There is no set hours to it. If it is a fire that occurs at night, I can get to it,” Quinn said. “Weekday fires are nearly impossible because I have some work commitment going on and I can’t just drop it and go.”