Paula McCartney: A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


Paula McCartney, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, published by Silas Finch 2015


The tissue of the universe is continuous.  Roger Caillois

Before there was science there was natural philosophy and Aristotle was its first high priest.  Aristotle developed his philosophy in the close observation of the things and phenomena of this world. Searching for truth in the particular, he believed the revelation of essences was to be found in specificity. In that sense photography would have served him well. But alas, the medium would not be available for another 2300 years or so.

Aristotle invented the concept of meteorology. Why does the term for the study of weather imply the study of meteors?  Because he proposed that meteors were manifestations of the earth’s intentions.  These ‘exhalations’ were, in effect, messages to humanity.  Meteors and other celestial phenomena caused floods, droughts, and earthquakes, which needed not only to be endured but also interpreted for their deeper meaning.  While Aristotle’s observations about meteors and their moist vapors had an element of the fantastical, he was not entirely inaccurate in the sense that earth’s atmosphere was most likely seeded with ice from visiting celestial bodies helping to hydrate this hot and dry rock 93 million miles from the sun.



Paula McCartney, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


Ice is all over our solar system, Pluto is essentially a big dirty snowball, Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons is covered in a sheet of ice so deeply lined it appears as if the Roman gods went skating there and Titan, a moon of Saturn, features ice spewing volcanoes.  Here on Earth the hydrologic cycle keeps the amount of water a constant through the processes of evaporation, condensation and precipitation. In rivers, lakes and oceans, water takes the form of its vessels, sometimes filling and overflowing in flood or receding in drought, seeping into earth’s secret passages or lifting into the air as vapor.  The average water molecule spends 11 days in the atmosphere before falling in the form of rain, snow, or ice. When it takes the form of snow or ice, water becomes individuated, fluid molecules gather tightly to form the proverbial unique snowflake or the crystalline fangs of the icicle. In its solid form water becomes physically present, resistant rather than immersive, what was humidity in the tropics becomes tundra in the arctic.



Paula McCartney, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


In A Field Guide to Snow and Ice Paula McCartney has set up her tripod with one leg planted in the natural sciences, another in the descriptive and typological powers of photography and a third in the phenomenological encounter of the varied manifestations of water made solid.  The traditional field guide accompanies the traveler into the wilderness of mountain trails and backyards, ponds and night skies; it helps us to name trees, frogs, birds, rocks and stars. It is a civilizing anchor that functions to assuage the anxiety of the unknown through the process of identification.

Unfolding along this journey with Paula McCartney’s images we pass by jagged piles of frozen water and through snowy fields in the middle of the night. Close-up images of ice sheets seem to reveal significant patterns of bubbles and striations. Could it be the universe is speaking to us through the binary articulation of water and air? Some forms are reassuring, lovely and intricate, yet just around a corner a figure looms out of the darkness like an ancient albino Golem.  We discern common phenomena then uncertainty arises with an image of uncanny difference. Is that a snowflake or Queen Anne’s Lace? Is that an ice-covered snowdrift or a monumental stalagmite buried deep in the earth?  As we are led from the familiar into terra incognita we begin to question the stability of our categories; perhaps there is another way of knowing the world other than by our narrow habits of classification.



Paula McCartney, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


We experience wonder at our representational limits. From the 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy who invented the binomial system of classification to the early 20th century German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, who collected plants and photographed them at close range in order to reveal their architectonic structure, McCartney’s images link to the primal human endeavor to understand the world through naming and study of form.  She blends this human desire for visual and linguistic coherence with a contemporary understanding of the necessarily limiting effect of that conceit; language may provide a map but it also imprisons us.

Photography describes but does not categorize, its capability of precise observation allows for surprising pivots away from the ordinary and recognizable toward the inscrutable. That which we cannot identify threatens to destabilize our fixed universe, we want this and dread it simultaneously. We want to know what we are looking at which is why some people are hostile to art. In the hands of an artist such as Paula McCartney, photography can both decipher and re-enchant. In A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, her images leads us along a path montaged, as it were, in the gray areas between knowing and not knowing, where we encounter phenomenological mystery as it flashes up, glistening in front of us like an insistent question.



Paula McCartney, A Field Guide to Snow and Ice

This essay was originally published in Paula McCartney: A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, Silas Finch 2015