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In photography, snow and ice are generally monochromatic subjects. They are given texture by the play of light on the surface and scale by the objects that frame or poke through that surface. In “A Field Guide to Snow and Ice,” Paula McCartney has used light effectively to give form and texture to these images, but has also carefully framed them to eliminate clues to the actual size of the subject. While not the factual discourse implied by its title, Paula McCartney’s “Field Guide to Snow and Ice” explores the photographic illusions of snow and ice.
In her previous projects McCartney played with the dichotomy between the natural and the artificial: “Bronx Zoo” depicted birds within the manufactured landscapes of an aviary; then, in “Bird Watching,” reality was flipped with images of manufactured “birds” posed in natural landscapes. After moving to Minneapolis she decided to explore the snowy landscape, though not necessarily always “out in the cold.” Her current work on view at the Klompching Gallery offers her interpretation of winter, the viewer’s perceptions challenged through an exploration not just of snow and ice, but also of their visual analogues.
Twenty-eight consciously sequenced, moderately sized, relentlessly monochromatic photographs from the series are presented. At a quick glance, they do look like snow and ice in its various manifestations: falling, drifted, packed, stacked, and even individual flakes. However, McCartney sees “winter everywhere, in every environment, in every season and categorizes it by pattern, shape, and line rather than merely by substance.” Consequently, all is not what it appears to be.
The captions provide some clues: solidified water is identified as blizzard, sheet ice, snow drift, icicles, etc. with a sequence number and year. However, other images are identified with a location, sequence number and year, and positioned to highlight visual similarities (icicles against a dark background appear close to images of stalagmites which echo the patterns of a frozen waterfall). Without the captions, a viewer would be hard pressed to differentiate Snow Drifts from the dunes in White Sands. (And I am still unsure of Parking Lot #1.)These photographs bear close examination whether or not one reads the captions. Close viewing brings interesting details to light. In the Backyard Show images the “tails” of the falling snow make it appear as if it is flying up from the ground, not falling. The upper reaches of the Ice Floe images shows deep blue ripples on the dark water, providing a sense of scale and hinting that these seemingly monochromatic prints were actually created in color. While there is a flatness to some images (Black Ice #1 and #2) reminiscent of Aaron Siskind’s peeling paint abstractions, others, such as Sheet Ice #1, impart a sense of depth. The shadows in White Sands #10, 2009, emphasize the modeling of the subject but the framing left me uncertain of the actual scale. (Was it a small outcrop or a distant peak?).
Perhaps it is my background in scientific publishing, but the use of “Field Guide” in the series title triggered references to examples of scientific photography, e.g. the Blizzard photos (2011) called to mind star fields and the Ice Floes (2008), asteroids. The Queen Anne’s Lace Snowflake images are lovely botanical specimens that echo starburst fireworks more than the hexagonal ice crystal structure.