Snow Anxiety

During the winter I tend to photograph less and study photographs more–my own and those of others that I find compelling–and I read and think about photography. I don’t like photographing in weather below freezing, and snow-covered scenes, even pretty ones, don’t really draw me in.

I suppose I need to work on the second issue, which might go a long way to addressing the first; but it’s good for me to reflect on my photography and how and what I see. Writers need to read other’s work to grow and listen to feedback on their own. Photographers likewise. No image or piece of writing is wholly our own.

The three snowy images below are ones I took as I waited out the snowstorm that held much of North America hostage for several days before and after Christmas. The relentlessness of the snow, as about 20 inches built up in my neighborhood left me anxious. And, yes, it was pretty looking on the ground once it was done.

This week, off from work for 10 days, I have been reading, thinking, and studying seeing. What draws me in, holds my attention, speaks to me, in my best images (best and most compelling by my lights) and what in the images of other photographers?

It’s images that include nature and humans in it, especially human intervention in the landscape. That’s what I see, or what I’m looking for, when I do landscape photography. More abstractly, I am moved by images that are stark, lonely, reaching out, aspirational, holding back, giving in, ugly, beautiful.

There does not need to be anything identifiably human in the image. The photographer is always in the photo, implicitly, as is the viewer. Non-human nature exists apart from humans, of course, but “Nature” also is a construction of the human imagination, as William Cronon explained in a controversial essay two decades ago. It’s about the idea of wilderness in particular, but nature more generally.

The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it’s a product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made. Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural. As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires. For this reason, we mistake ourselves when we suppose that wilderness can be the solution to our culture’s problematic relationships with the nonhuman world, for wilderness is itself no small part of the problem.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a series of images documenting small town and urban neighborhood business districts in Michigan. They’re not much different from other parts of the Midwest, I expect. Looking at these images, and why I’ve kept at this series, it’s something similar to what I see and look for in my landscape images. The mix of decay, beauty, precariousness, endurance, desperation, aspiration, fragmentation, community. The tensions and the harmony in those things in a place and moment. That’s what calls me in the music I listen to as well.

This image from the summer of 2021 captures what I mean.

So, I suppose that I need to look harder during the next few months of winter (and not bellyache about the cold). Here’s a larger version of the cover image.

And all the best to everyone in 2023.

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