How can something as seemingly straightforward as a snowflake be interpreted so differently? What do photographs of snow have to teach us about artistic originality?
Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and snowflakes have been on my mind, specifically the snowflakes of Doug and Mike Starn.
Born in New Jersey in 1961, Mike and Doug Starn have worked collaboratively in photography since the age of thirteen.
The identical-twin brothers are probably best known for their rooftop installation Big Bambú: You Can’t, You Don’t, and You Won’t Stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The 70-foot cresting wave made from 7,000 bamboo poles and assembled by the brothers and a team of rock climbers, was the fourth most-attended contemporary art exhibit in the world in 2010 (and the 9th most attended in the history of the Met) with a total of 631,000 visitors.
At their giant laboratory studio in Beacon, New York, the former Tallix foundry, the Starns continue to build the first Big Bambú, a constantly evolving construction, formed by a network of more than 2,500 bamboo poles lashed together. This enormous studio allows Doug and Mike to work in dialogue between Big Bambú and their many concurrent series: most recently The No Mind Not Thinks No Things and other Buddhist explorations—the Absorption of Light and their re-exploration of the late 19th century color carbon printing process.
The themes of nature, light, and impermanence run through many of the Starns’ works. Their series, alleverythingthatisyou, which captures snow crystals through photomicrographs, also reveals a Buddhist influence, for it’s the imperfection (and inherent impermanence) of their snowflakes, with their ragged edges and missing parts, that makes them so remarkable and poignant.
But we can’t fully understand the Starns’ photo series without knowledge of the groundbreaking work of Wilson Bentley.
Bentley, who lived in Jericho, Vermont, was the first person to photograph snowflakes. He captured over 5,000 images of crystals from his first photograph in 1885 until his death in 1931. It was Bentley who asserted in a scientific journal that no two snowflakes were alike, a concept that captured the public’s imagination both then and now. Bentley’s book Snow Crystals was published by McGraw/Hill in 1931 and is still in print today.
One of the striking differences in the photographs of Bentley and the Starn brothers (besides color) is the brothers’ embrace of imperfection. Bentley called snowflakes little “masterpieces,” “tiny miracles of beauty,” and he had a particular obsession with “perfect” snowflakes.
As this story from WNYC’s Radiolab explains details, Bentley went so far as to alter his photographic negatives with a knife in order make his snowflakes more symmetrical. Bentley thought these retouched ice crystals were “truer to nature” than untouched ones (an idea that the German meteorologist Gustav Hellmann took serious issue with when he began his own study of snow).
Caltech physics professor Ken Libbrecht, who has been studying snowflakes for years, argues that there is no such thing as a perfect flake (though he continues to search). Libbrecht has published his own guide to snow, but the goal of his work is scientific. His photographs, one of which is shown above, are clear and straightforward, just as you would expect them to be.
Which leads us back to Doug and Mike Starn…
Wilson Bentley’s influence over the past century has been so great that few photographers have dared to follow in his footsteps (Libbrecht is one of the few). As Libbrecht himself has said, Bentley “did it so well that hardly anybody bothered to photograph snowflakes for almost 100 years.”
The Starns’ approach is partly science, but mostly art. It took the brothers years to hammer out the logistics that would allow them to capture flakes during their fleeting existence — there were microscopic lenses, plasma-emitting lights, snowstorm photo sessions. But the results speak for themselves. There is a poetic quality about their flakes that is absent in the work of both Libbrecht and Bentley.
What was remarkable about Bentley’s images was the fact that he took them in the first place. His snow photographs revealed details never seen by the naked eye, which was memorable. But today, technology has made such feats commonplace. For the Starn brothers’ snowflakes to have visual impact, they must be unique and stand apart from Bentley’s. In other words, they must be original. We, as viewers, are hard to impress at this stage of the game. We’ve seen snowflake photographs before; for snow to hold our attention, we must witness a quality that we’ve never witnessed before.
What also separates the photography of these men is intention. Like many post-Darwinian, 19th century, Western thinkers, Bentley believed in the perfectibility of nature and its ideal. While Libbrecht differs from Bentley philosophically, his primary motive is utilitarian—to use photography to aid scientific knowledge.
In contrast, the Starn brothers embrace a poetic imperfection in their photographs. To see the beauty in the blemishes—to appreciate nature as it is, ragged edges and all—is an Eastern idea at its core. I would argue that it’s the irregularity (or as the Japanese call it, the “wabi-sabi”) of the Starns brothers’ snowflakes that makes them so beautiful and appealing. They are not merely documentation. They are much, much more.
To contrast these photographs side-by-side is revealing, for it’s a powerful lesson about originality. As artists, it’s easy to give up to soon—to avoid exploring a certain theme or subject because it’s been done before. But art is a call and response over time. The best art is not created in a vacuum. Using the history of a medium as a touchstone to express something new is challenging, but it’s a hurdle that ambitious artists must overcome if they want to be taken seriously. After all, how can we participate in the larger conversation if we don’t even know who is sitting at the table?I‘ve assembled a number of the photographs from the alleverythingthatisyou series here. These ice crystals can also be viewed in the monograph Alleverythingthatisyou, but unfortunately, this photography book is rare and expensive. 20×200 has a few remaining special-edition photographs from the series remaining. You can also see more work by Doug and Mike Starn at the brothers’ website.
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