Contextualize Your Work

A Student recently posted to the Photo Program Listserv:



I’ve recently posted a few of my own snowflake images to the COD flickr Group.  They are challenging to photograph and it’s taken me years to figure it out, but here’s the thing:

I went out in the snow last night and I felt like the process was mechanical.  I set up the camera, set up lights, found interesting snowflakes, placed snowflakes in front of lens in pleasing positions, focused, shot, repeated.  There isn’t much variety in the process!  How many different ways can I capture a  snowflake image?  Not only that, I could show most any photographer how I do it and they would create images that are pretty much indistinguishable from mine.  Just search for “snowflakes” on flickr and you’ll see a few people producing photos that are very similar.

I think Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was obviously  not only in another league, but an entirely different game.  He captured his first snowflake image in 1885!  He used film.  He used a view camera.  He hand etched the emulsion on the negatives to sharply outline the shape of the crystals.  I’m sitting here shaking my head as I think about Bentley’s dedication to produce over 5,300 snowflake images during the course of 46 years!  I’ve read a lot about him and I get the impression that, although he thought snowflakes were beautiful, he didn’t really think that what he was doing as art.  He thought of his endeavor more as a scientific study.  From my perspective I think the uniqueness, dedication, and quality of his work leaves no doubt that what he did was in fact a form of art.

So… are the digital snowflake images I’m producing art?

Does the modern technique, relative ease, and repetition of the process make them something else… perhaps just a craft?

What makes any of our work more than just a craft, but something more?

Mix it up, but please be nice.  I have a fragile ego!


A response was posted:


I think Helena’s idea of “context” is right on target. It’s hard to produce a project without some sense of what that project says… about you, about the subject, about the world at large, about… something.

So, I think if you started brainstorming about how you can contextualize your images of snowflakes. What is it that fascinates you about them? Why do you feel compelled to photograph them? What other things in your life (or the world or relationships or… ) do snowflakes make you think of? Are there poems about snowflakes that you admire? Does snow itself have any historical, literary or philosophical relevance that you can leverage?

If I had to pick one thing that I’d like to change about the way COD Photo students approach photography… it’s this one: context. It’s one thing to photograph subject matter that you like, it’s another to start to use that subject matter to express an opinion or feeling that you have or a point you want to make.

An example could be “trees” or, a bit more generically, “the natural world.”

Here’s Beth Dow, whose project “In The Garden” was selected as the Photography.Book.Now winner a couple years ago:

Then there’s our own faculty member Miles Lowry, with his twin projects about old growth forests and the savannah, both of which have been exhibited in numerous venues:

In both cases, the photographers have subject matter that has attracted photographers since the medium’s beginning. The subjects aren’t new, but their approach is. Obviously part of that approach is a visual style, but another part of the approach is what they want to use the photographs to say…. what they want us to “get” from the experience of looking at them.

Part of Dow’s statement about the work says: “I am interested in garden history and historical concepts of paradise, and aim for pictures that have a meditative quality to reflect the spiritual urges that inspired the earliest gardens some six thousand years ago.” “My images are not depictive. I use the land before me as a jumping off point, implying light or shadow where perhaps there was none, as a way to create my own path through the garden.”

Lowry says, in part: “These special remnant sites are the last echoes of a forest that dominated the eastern landscape and still serve as genetic reservoirs of our forested future.” “…I hope to contribute to a re-definition of the grandeur associated with American landscape. To me, grandeur also resides in the simplicity of elemental organic natural forms and the visual complexity of undisturbed habitats.”

So, they are both aiming in different places, both literally (gardens vs. wild places) and figuratively (meditation vs. grandeur). Interestingly, both make mention of historical context as well as their own personal “slant” on the subject.

So, don’t despair that your snowflake pictures have been done before. every photograph has been done before. What you need to do is figure out a way to have YOUR photographs of snowflakes exist in a context that makes them your own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: