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)