For many, the mere mention of winter brings to mind such pejoratives as– barren, cold, desolate, empty, long, relentless, biting. lonely, dreary, dismal, isolated, extreme and bare— to name but a few. Indeed, while some find the fluff and bluster of a deep winter engaging, many tend to view it as a period of time that must simply be endured until life reawakens in the spring. While gathering together and arranging the images and words featured on this page, I found myself pondering Wallace Stevens’ famous poem, “The Snow Man,” in which he writes, “One must have a mind of winter” and “have been cold a long time / To behold the junipers shagged with ice” and “not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind”– an observation which not only suggests that in order to understand the winter one’s mind must be of the winter but also reminds us that winter itself, in actuality, is not bound to the biting, cold adjectives that we often use to complain about it; rather, such unpleasant conclusions, which are born from the frustrations of an undesired endurance of the cold, are projected onto that landscape by those who grow tired of the seemingly unrelenting cold (or never really cared for it in the first place). Indeed, winter and the landscape that it powders has no emotion, no concerns, no worries, no complaints. It is we, the interpreters and explainers of all that amuses and annoys us, that personify such snow-filled landscapes and invest them with our ever-fickle miseries and joys. After all, some see the empty, cold landscape as an invitation to solitude and silence … to “alone-ness” … and, ultimately, as an opportunity to experience a silent moment of beauty (in spite of its dangers and difficulties).
To that end, I am also reminded of the quintessential American poet Robert Frost, who– in his famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”– wrote about a lone traveler that stops on the coldest, darkest evening of the year to watch the nearby woods fill up with snow. The traveler, after noting his location and wondering if his horse thinks it odd to stop in such cold and darkness, observes “The only other sound’s the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake” soon followed by his realization that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep” and then, finally, the potentially haunting echo of “And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep.” Frost’s traveler, contrary to what some might believe, is not overwhelmed by loneliness and sadness but seemingly drawn– albeit potentially dangerously– to the beauty of the woods’ darkness and deepness and, by extension, the potential darkness and deepness of beauty itself. For a life spent only pursuing beauty, at the expense of one’s responsibilities, has its dangers and futility (and waiting too long in the middle of the night as the snow falls can, after all, lead to death). In the end, however, it is, ultimately, a poem about someone who has stopped to watch the woods fill with snow because it is a beautiful and silent sight to behold.
Considered together, Stevens’ and Frost’s observations remind us that all human perception of the landscape of winter is bound to language, to emotions, to personal aesthetics, and, ultimately, to a patience, or lack thereof, for endurance– for, after all, one can easily perish in such relentless cold (or, at the very least, quickly grow uncomfortable from enduring the miserableness of the biting cold). Yet … indeed, yet … for many, the winter reflects an undeniable beauty even in the midst of its dangers, its cold, its starkness and its seeming emptiness– and, as a result, winter has become a never-ending source of inspiration for many poets, writers, painters, musicians and, for our purposes, photographers.
In the light of that pursuit of the sublime, in the light of the beauty and its potential dangers, in the light of its possibilities for moments of contemplation– I’d like to invite you to view the images and read the words of a handful of photographers who have shaped the winter through their minds’ eyes and captured their slices of wintry silence …
Nathan Wirth, December 2015
The Photographers Are Being Served in Alphabetical Order
1. Stephen Cairns
Winter Photography: A few weeks ago, Nathan asked me to write something about winter photography. As I was in the process of reorganizing my website images and was looking at things seasonally, I felt it would be no problem and said as much to him. A Canadian familiar with winter should not have too much trouble writing about winter photography. When I got down to the task of putting fingers on keyboard, I soon realized that I was untethered in a snowstorm and quickly getting lost. After countless false starts and wordsmith meandering, I think I’ve finally found my way clear.
When going through my publicly shared images, I realized that fully three quarters were made in winter. There are obvious reasons for that, both personal and practical. I do a lot more with my family during the other three seasons owing to better weather. The nature of my work also means that I have considerably more time to pursue photography from late November through mid-March. Winter in Japan is also much more temperate than those of my youth spent in rural Ontario, Canada. Temperatures seldom drop much below -5°C and most days are about 5°C making winter photography viable provided one dresses appropriately. Additionally, planning and travel for 7 am sunrise shoots in winter is so much easier than those 5 am ones of summer. In fact, shorter winter days means that one can catch sunrise and sunset with a short break at noon and still be home for dinner. Those are some of the personal and practical explanations of the imbalance of “keepers” made in winter but they don’t speak to the artistic appeal of working in that season.
While winter weather can be comparatively harsh and very changeable, it is precisely those conditions which make landscape photography interesting. Around Lake Biwa, Japan, where I do the majority of my photography, the weather turns quickly in the mountainous north of the lake. Calm and misty mornings yield to cold, north winds bringing snow over the mountains in the afternoon. I actively seek to put myself into situations where I know the weather can turn. It is those transitional periods that intrigue. Storm weather obscures details. Distant shores erased by steadily falling snow, white jetties cutting through dark winter waters, Biwa’s ubiquitous fishing installations trailing off to a snow obscured veil of white -it is the hope to shoot scenes where mid and background details disappear into a fog of nothingness that gets me out of bed on cold winter mornings. To better explain, I’ll use a winter haiku by Hashin:
Ten mo chi mo nashi ni yuki no furishikiri
There is neither heaven nor earth,
For those from colder climes, the poem will activate winter memories. I can recall many times not being able to see much beyond the hood of my car while driving in Canada. What resonates for me is the focus on the moment, on the here and now. That poetic sentiment focusing on the present is analogous to the photographic process. What is a photographer but one who, stirred by light, line, or form, is moved to record that moment? In many of my favourite winter images, it is winter’s weather that has simplified the scene without the use of extensive work in post processing. An obscuring snow does the work of taking out distracting details leaving only the subject and its lines for the viewer’s attention. Winter’s simplification of line and shape, which focuses viewer attention on the few details of the sparse winter landscape, makes for great minimal photography.
How photography is similar to winter does not end with the way in which winter forces one to appreciate the moment. To extend the analogy– isn’t winter similar to the long exposure photographic process? Both are characterized by their ability to remove details, the smooth waters of a long exposure photograph akin to the snow blanketed fields of winter. What we know of a place through spring, summer, and fall disappears under the smooth undulating whites of winter. Winter is the season of suggestion. What lies beneath the white surface is only hinted at in areas where fall or spring manage to reveal themselves. There is an incongruity of what we know and what we see. We know the furrowed field of autumn is there beneath the snowy surface. But it is the unseen and suggested that piques the imagination:
No mo yama mo yuki ni torarete nani mo nashi
Fields and mountains, –
The snow has taken them all,
— Joso —
Well, maybe not “nothing” but just enough to create a good minimal image.
One final aspect of winter photography that appeals to me relates to our expectations of a photograph and how an image exists as a record of place. Landscape photography is subject to something “out there.” There is no image without the landscape. An expectation of veracity exists. While we might allow for creative licence, what we see in a landscape image, we assume will have some referent in the real world. Unfortunately, a single “slice of silence” (nod to Nathan) can never come to be representative of a location. While the place / object photographed is real, the image of it is never representative of that place. How could it ever be? It is this failure of a landscape image to represent place that I find fascinating. Landscape images exist as fragments of time in a particular place but they can never be that place. Winter photography plays with that idea of fragmentation of time and image as record of place. How? By physically showing the fragmenting, obscuring effects of weather. Winter scenes are fragments of what we normally expect and experience. Landscape photographs are also fragments of a “real” place. It is that similarity which somehow makes winter photography feel like a somewhat honest form of image making to me. The actual fact that photographs are fragments of the real is made manifest in the fragmented nature of a winter landscape. There are few ways in which photographs are honest, but I find that to be one of them.
Stephen Cairns, December 2014 (website)
Gallery of Images (click image to view larger size)
2. Athena Carey
I am extremely sensitive to both visual and auditory stimuli and as such, I find much of life to be messy – filled with distractions, temptations, and disturbances. Sometimes they are sparkly or melodic and while distracting they are at least also pleasing, but even this can become overwhelming. And too often, they are dirty, disordered, screeching or wailing and I find myself longing for a pause, for a way to quiet the constant cacophony, to still the chaos.
Although I am not fond of being cold, a fresh, clean, early morning snowfall offers me exactly this sensory escape. With the world blanketed in snow, complex scenes become simple and sounds are buffered by and absorbed into the cushion of soft snow. This white veil, draped across the landscape, rooftops, roadways, trees, fields, grasses, fences, paths, bridges and shrubs, allows me the luxury of focusing only on what I choose, without being pushed and pulled by so much else.
Up early and alone in this clean stillness, I find a huge amount of personal contentment. My inner thoughts dance gracefully across this open stage of quiet white, with only the sound of my own footsteps and a few brave winter birds. The air tastes cleaner, my mind feels clearer, and I am embraced and fortified by a soothing sense of calmness. These are treasured moments for me – a gift from nature and I try to share this gift through my photography. My hope is that these snow images offer a small tidbit of quiet and calm to others as well. Breathe it in, let it flow through you and then face that world of chaos again.
Athena Carey, December 2014 (website)
Gallery of Images (click image to view larger size)
3. Michael Diblicek
Photographing in the Snow: I’ve been living in Eastern France for the last 15 years, which i love. Although surrounded by forests and lakes, it is high enough at 350 meters above sea level to catch the snow that falls most years– with temperatures falling between -5°C and -20°C, and during milder winters leaves me a 1Hr drive to drive up onto the higher altitudes of around 1250 Metres above sea level that i have been exploring over the last couple of years where the snow is more plentiful and deeper and coupled with the mountain mist makes for the ideal conditions that i search for my minimalist snowscapes.
This is a period of the year which I love, and winter is my favorite season.
Photographing in the snow is a beautiful moment with nothing but the silence to surround me while i search the landscape for a fence-line, telegraph pole, tree’s , benches etc. I’m searching for a single or very small group of subjects.
Here in France on the majority of the higher mountains a ski stations there are webcams that you can access which allows me to look at the current conditions before getting in the car and deciding to go out.
The actual process of photographing in the snow was a little difficult at first as the majority of my photography is Long Exposures, so setting up a tripod, loading the filters etc was always part of my photographic rhythm, and while i occasionally shoot long exposure snowscapes the majority are now shot with much faster shutter speeds above 1/60sec.
I shoot 99% of the time with a tripod even at faster shutter speeds and even though i shoot digitally i always shoot using a separate exposure meter and is a personal choice. (Sekonic 758DR). I have recently acquired a Pentax 6×7 film camera and a couple of wide angle lenses so will be shooting the majority of my work on film this year.
I always shoot in RAW no matter what the subject or conditions giving me a lot more control to fine tune in post.
After that it’s just a question of walking and searching my subjects, occasionally I will drive along roads in summertime and if i see something interesting for a snowscape I will make a note or take a phone photo and GPS reading with the intention of returning when the snows begin to fall.
Michael Diblicek, December 2014 (website)
Gallery of Images (click image to view larger size)
4. Sandra Parlow
I live in the Canadian Prairies.
That means snow and cold. And lots of it.
As a Canadian photographer who shoots mainly landscapes, that means that about half of my year is cold and snowy, so it really leaves me no choice. Either I shoot or I don’t.
Shooting in the cold and snow is a challenge. My biggest challenge is trying to find a way to keep my hands warm and still operate my camera at the same time. My glasses fog up, and half the time I have to scrape frost off of them so that I can look through my view finder. If I’m lucky, I manage not to fall over in my snow shoes and get snow in my camera.
But there is a thing that happens to you when you are out there in the cold snow and ice, with the fierce winter winds whipping at your face…..
You find silence.
And not the silence of your refrigerator humming or the birds chirping by the river..
But real, HEAVY silence. The kind that you can feel in your bones. It is so heavy you can almost feel it pushing down into your ears. The kind of silence where all you can hear is your own breath and the crunching of the snow under your big orange snow shoes. When you stand still, you can hear your heart beating. The kind of silence where you sometimes make a noise just to make sure you can still hear it. The kind of silence that makes you feel small and insignificant and all alone in the world but is also comforting at the same time.
I see shooting in the winter as a whole other kind of animal than any other time of year. Usually you are looking for things to include in your photos. I find that winter shooting is often about minimalism. Of trying to portray that quiet peace in your photo by looking for what “isn’t” there.
Our world turns very monochrome here in the Canadian winter. One winter, we had such a long stretch of grey skies and white ground that I actually began to wonder if there was something wrong with my camera– that maybe it wasn’t picking up colour any longer. It sounds silly– I know– but I didn’t understand how powerful and beautiful it could be then. Now I know better. Shooting in the cold winter white is a whole different process and it took time for me to figure out how to do it effectively.
The white of the open prairies in winter is all encompassing and it allows you to see what’s underneath all of the colour and the distractions as it all just kind of blends away. It allows you to see the world in black and white.
There are times when I find it difficult to convince myself to get dressed and go out in the cold, but most of the times that I do I’m rewarded for my efforts, and I come home with such a feeling of peace and solitude even if I did not get the shot I hoped for.
Winter, for us Canadians, can be brutal and cruel. It tests our patience, our resolve and our strength. But it also can be beautiful when the world goes to sleep and the trees bare their souls to us and allow us to see them as they really are.
It can allow your mind to expand and your soul to breathe in the freshness of life.
It can give us truth. It can give us simplicity. It can give us quiet … and it can give us peace.
Sandra Parlow, December 2014 (website)
Gallery of Images (click image to view larger size)
5. Martin Rak
Since childhood, I have always been attracted to nature. It doesn’t matter if it is hiking, climbing, travelling… I just love being outside. Therefore, it is more than obvious that when it comes to photography, I enjoy shooting landscape and nature the most.
For the last two or three years I tend to shoot more and more black and white minimalist images, which means I need to simplify the scene as much as I can and there are three main elements helping me with that – water, fog and snow.
There is no sea in the Czech Republic, but we usually get some fog and snow in the winter. I am always excited when the first snow starts falling from the sky and the entire country becomes white and silent. It is a wonderful feeling to walk in the fresh snow in a forest completely covered in frost and look for the best composition. It is like a dream white world away from everyday life. It is where I want to be, where I want to relax, where I want to create.
The winterscape is clean, simple, quiet and calming.
Martin Rak, December 2014 (website)
Gallery of Images (click image to view larger size)
6. Regan Shercliffe
I am a product of my roots, and, hence, the prairie pragmatist is part of my fabric. So, in Saskatchewan Canada,where I took most of the winter photos contained here, we have winter for at least eight months of the year, and, if you like taking photos, then you will inevitably spend time taking photos in the winter. And, in that part of the world, they get real winter- -40C and a lot of snow. That said, I really enjoyed hopping in my truck and driving aimlessly down barely passable back roads while looking for those minimalist landscapes that are hallmarks of the prairies. In a prairie winter, you don’t get the big skies with all of the crazy cloud formations that come with thunderstorms, tornados and the like. Instead, the winter quiets the sky and covers the ground so that you can focus on how the snow shapes the landscape– which really accentuates those barns, silos and roads that in summer would be surrounded by various crops while framed with huge cloud formations.
If you like minimalist landscapes, then come to the Canadian prairies in the middle of January, and you will have no shortage of subjects. The downside is the weather: just see how long you can frame a shot while standing in -30C with a 60km wind blowing in your face. You can forget about using a tripod because by the time you set it up, you can’t feel your fingers and your camera will die if you take an exposure longer than 30 seconds. The typical Canadian prairie winter shoot looks something like this: (1) find a promising shot, (2) pull over but not too far because the snow is deep and you can’t see the ditch and if you hit the ditch you are really stuck in the middle of no where (3) make sure you have your camera set properly, (4) jump out and take 4-5 shots quickly (always leave your vehicle running with the heat cranked), and (6) jump back in your vehicle to de-thaw while checking what you got and then repeat the steps all over again. Appropriate clothing is a must; toques and snowmobile boots are a must; you can’t worry too much about how you look so leave your vanity at home. When I took “9” [see above], I was waist deep in snow and was shivering so hard I thought I was going to drop my camera. The shot ended up being quite serene, but I felt anything but serene when I was taking it.
I don’t like to spend too much time deconstructing landscapes or searching for some deeper meaning. Landscapes for me are about silencing the everyday noise and prairie winters provide a unique opportunity to clear away the clutter. Clearing the mind by looking at a minimal landscape is the end goal for me – too much thought ruins the experience. If I want to light up the neurons I will look at Larry Towell or Jacob Aue Sobol‘s work.
I am living in the middle east now and I am smiling as I write this. I really enjoyed taking those photos, and I still enjoy looking at them. One of the advantages of having lived in various parts of the world– and because of work having traveled to many other parts of the world– is that not only can you see the many differences between cultures but you also become keenly aware of the many similarities. In my experience, winter in whatever part of the world you are in, regardless of temperature, is associated with a paring back of activities, shutting things down, spending more time inside, and, in essence, settling into a more introspective period- which is, arguably, analogous to a minimalist aesthetic. I included some photos I took during the winter in Asia, Europe and the Middle East that may not on the surface look like they have much in common with the snow-covered Canadian prairies, but when I took them there was little activity; it was quiet, and it was a wonderful opportunity to clear the mind– exactly the same as the snow covered landscapes.