I’m in the final stages of sending files to my graphic designer for my photography coffee table book, Art of Winter. Originally I thought it would have one essay, I Miss Winter, but after working on selecting all the images for the book I realized that it needed a second and different essay. To reward you loyal readers and to entice new readers, here’s a sneak peak at it. I hope it will inspire you to as one reader wrote that it whetted her appetite to see the book.
I’m still in the process of raising funds through Kickstarter so there’s still time to pre-order your own copy at a really reasonable price. Prints and canvases are also available.
Essay #2 – Art of Winter
My photography education occurred in the field more than in the classroom. Years ago I had the privilege to take a medium-format workshop with a number of top-notch photographers, including internationally acclaimed wildlife photographer, Jim Zuckerman. I also had the opportunity to do some master photography classes with Tom McInvaille of Studio M in Madison, Wisconsin. Although their subject matter and approach were vastly different, Jim and Tom praised my work as well as critiqued it in ways that made me become a better photographer. They also gave me the same bit of advice. They said in similar words, “Julie, you have what it takes to do photography professionally. However, if you want to continue enjoying photography don’t do it for a living.”
I was at a crossroads and had to decide whether to do photography professionally or do massage therapy and bodywork to make a living. My mentors’ words implied that instead of being a pleasure, that photography would become work if I did it professionally. I chose to make my living by doing bodywork, which paid for my photographic pursuits. Photography has been an avocation of mine for over fourteen years.
When I first moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I anticipated spending many winter hours indoors, reading books and working on projects. My husband and friends had talked about the pleasures of winter camping. Even though I liked snow I was not one who jumped at the chance to freeze my nose just for the sake of being outside in sub-freezing weather. He encouraged me to get out and enjoy the crisp mornings before the day got away from me. My camera was my constant companion.
Bundled up in insulated Carhartt overalls, LL Bean parka and Muck boots, I donned my neck warmer and hat and grabbed my mittens. My mittens were key. Years ago I had found some wonderful wool knit mittens with leather on the palms. Inside there was a liner that had fingers, which kept my fingers warm. But before I put the mittens on I slipped on a pair of thin angora knit gloves. They were a third layer and would keep my fingers warm when I pulled off my mittens and pulled out my camera.
Along with Jim Zuckerman, Jim Brandenburg’s photography work inspired me. Their work spoke to me and conveyed a love of nature. I had received Brandenburg’s book “Chased by the Light” as a birthday present. There were often days when I walked Lake Huron’s wintery shoreline thinking “If I were to take just one photograph today, what might I choose?” as Brandenburg had done for ninety days.
“But there are too many neat things to see that I want to take pictures of to show others!” was my response to myself.
Water, wind and cold temperatures were the forces that created the masterpieces I saw and photographed. The lake changed hourly and daily just as the sun and clouds did. Sometimes it was serene and other times it acted like a tempest. Gentle waves lapped up on the rocks and covered them layer by layer with sub-freezing water. In the lake, the water was not able to freeze because of the wave motion, but when it washed onto the rocks it turned to ice and created beautiful shapes.
When the winds came from the south or west they created large swells that eventually turned into large waves, sometimes four to six feet high near shore and up to twelve feet tall on the open lake. The brutal pounding broke the ice and threw it back onto the shore. Walking amidst the ice strewn rocks took a careful step. Some areas were solid and other areas were ankle twisters. It could be precarious with my camera in hand. I learned to anticipate that I might have my balance thrown off if the solid-looking ice or snow underfoot were to give way. With this in mind I was not startled as easily if my foot sank further than I initially expected.
Those same south and west winds whipped across the island to create drifts and sculpt razor-sharp lines. Sometimes when I stared at them too long they became optical illusions. And the wind acted as an eraser of the tracks of the coyote who had searched the island for food; each night it erased any traces that he had been there the morning before.
Sunrises and sunsets are glorious in the spring, summer and fall. But in the winter the light is lower and reflects differently. This to me was a large part of the splendor of winter. Ice and snow captured the light like a diamond captures the sun. They made light dazzle! Dense ice reflected the light back as a rich sky-blue. When the clouds allowed the sun to peek out, glorious reds and golds would streak across the sky, often illuminating the underside of the clouds and reflecting off the lake’s skim ice.
And then there was the smell of the air — it was crisp and clean, similar to just after a summer thunderstorm, with the air full of negative ions. It invigorated me.
On the rare morning when temperatures quickly dropped and froze in place any moisture that had been in the air hoar frost was created. All surfaces were covered with hoar frost and there was lots of eye candy for a photographer. The dense, fuzzy ice-crystals of hoar frost only occurred under certain circumstances and often disappeared within a few hours of the sun rising. After a fresh snowfall it was fun to look for tracks of animals that I knew inhabited the island with us, but which we rarely got to see—coyote, otter and grouse. Their tracks and piles of scat told the story of their search for breakfast that morning.
Some days nothing caught my attention; it seemed as if there was nothing stunning to make me glad I had peeled myself out from between cozy warm flannel sheets to wander around in frigid weather. So I’d alter my course; sometimes if the water was calm I’d wade in it in my waterproof Muck boots.
“Get low. Look at things from a different angle.” In my head I heard memories from years back when another of my photography instructors told me to how to get a different perspective. I squatted down. I was careful to not put my butt in the lake as I looked at the side of the ice banks. There in a fissure was a mini-ice cave with crystal-clear pillars. It was only about five inches high and stunning! A true gem. As I photographed the mini-ice cave, I fantasized about shrinking myself until I was small enough to wade into it and enter a magical world.
On a different morning I spotted a black furry animal moving over the frozen west bay. What was that? Was that a cat? It was a hundred yards away from me. It couldn’t be a cat, it was too far from anywhere for it to be a stray. It made a straight line for the open water. The moment it slid on its belly into the freezing water I realized it was an otter. We would see their paw tracks in the snow and often came across their trails where they had slid on their bellies. Fortunately, that morning the cold did not discourage me from sitting right down and just observing. I was downwind and the otter had not smelled me, yet. I didn’t know which way it would go. Luck was with me and it swam along the line of ice, headed my way. I sat as still as possible while keeping my camera focused on it. It came closer and closer. I sat still and ignored the ice and snow under me. It was about ten feet away when it sensed there was another warm blooded creature nearby.
Silently I said good morning to it and told it I was just curious and would not harm it. In this area otters are trapped for their skin and killed because some people think they can be a nuisance leaving stinky scat piles around docks or eating all the fish in the area. For ten minutes I enjoyed watching it before it swam past me and dove into the cold and clear water looking for breakfast. I was quite happy and pleased; I had gotten some nice pictures. My day had been made, nothing could go wrong.
Even though I had been out for an hour and it was only about fifteen degrees I did not want to go back into the house to work. What could I do to procrastinate? I’d take one more walk down to the dock where I had started my morning walk on the opposite side of the island. In the distance on the edge of the east bay’s ice sat the otter. Again I sat down to watch. It dove off the ice into the thirty-foot deep water and resurfaced a minute or two later, climbed back onto the ice and ate a fish or crawfish. Soon it dove again. Each time it went below I scooted myself closer to the edge of the rocks and ice. Thirty minutes quickly went by. It was too far away to get any decent photographs but the experience was priceless.
My fingers were cold and so was my camera. Its battery bore the brunt of my passion. The cold depleted most of its charge regardless of how much I kept it tucked in my parka. By the time I returned to the house my nose and cheeks were a deep pink. It had been a great morning exploring the art of winter.