A Field Guide to Snow and Ice by Paula McCartney
In 1928, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley wrote in the New York Times “[t]he snow and the ice and the boar frost furnish brilliants that are incomparably more beautiful than the gems of the Summer dew or those wrought elsewhere in nature’s laboratory.” Entranced by the natural world, he made the first photograph of a snowflake in 1885 at the age of twenty. Paula McCartney’s A Field Guide to Snow and Ice reflects a fascination and passion akin to Bentley’s for the unique and wide-ranging manifestations of frozen water vapor.
Flip quickly through McCartney’s field guide and you see snow and ice in its various forms — flakes, icicles, blizzards, floes, drifts, icebergs, mountains. They are beautiful studies of form and texture, with subjects treated like both specimens on microscope slides and as though they are bursting beyond the confines of the picture plane. Had I not done some additional research, I admit, it is unlikely that I would have understood the full depth of A Field Guide to Snow and Ice.
McCartney explains, “I see winter everywhere, in every environment, in every season and categorize it by pattern, shape and line rather than merely by substance.” This is what I could have conceivably missed — slyly intermingled among the snow and ice are pressed wildflowers, stalagmites in New Mexico, lava beds in Hawaii and piles of gypsum sand at White Sands National Monument. Even after discovering this fact, I remained hard-pressed to make irrefutable distinctions between the various matter in McCartney’s photographs. She unmoors her subjects from reality through a distorting approach to place, perspective and size. What moments ago seemed plain and clear is no longer so; the viewer is left to oscillate between a sense of truth and the looming potential of fiction.
A Field Guide to Snow and Ice is truly an art object, carefully executed with sensitivity to each and every detail. With no end pages, you immediately segue from the cover into photographs, presented full-bleed and reproduced beautifully to capture the subtlest of graduations. The pages are of varying widths, allowing formal and textural relationships to develop between slivers of images in addition to those that arise between photographs placed side-by-side. The lovely essay by Mary Alice Durant (which precipitated my search for additional information) was discretely tucked behind the back cover, separated from the continuous succession of photographs. When the spine is detached from the front cover, the book extends approximately 34 feet in length; this is a challenge worth undertaking since the unfurled series of images is strangely mesmerizing. I only recently became familiar with the books produced by Silas Finch when Anthony Hernandez’s L.A., 1971 was placed on my desk. I will eagerly await their future projects, which will undoubtedly push the photobook medium in new directions as these last two publications have done.
A field guide is a book used to identify birds, flowers, minerals or other things in their environments, directing the user to distinguish between the seemingly identical. McCartney’s A Field Guide to Snow and Ice does the opposite; it thwarts our ability to differentiate. In so doing, however, she encourages us to savor the act of sustained looking rather than reinforcing the persistent urge to immediately know and understand.