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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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