The PhotoBook Journal

June 10, 2015

Paula McCartney – A Field Guide to Snow and Ice


Copyright 2014 Paula McCartney Published by Silas Finch

Paula McCartney (b. 1971, Pittsburgh, PA & currently residing in Minneapolis, MN) has chosen a familiar subject for her photobook A Field Guide to Snow and Ice, a natural manifestation occurring frequently during the cold and chilly winters of Minnesota. For those who live in the northern states of the United States, as elsewhere at the extremes of our worldly hemisphere, snow and ice are more like family, not readily chosen but come with the territory.

Similar to her pervious photobook Bird Watching, McCartney purports to provide us a Field Guide on how to recognize the various types of snow and ice. She explores the idea of constructed icy landscapes using scientific practice of collecting, cataloging, identifying, classifying and organizing as a starting point for her work. Also very similar in concept to her photobook Bird Watching, what the reader encounters may not really be what they think it is. She employs a very cleaver sleight of hand in creating many of her photographs of her subject.

McCartney self-published an artist book titled On Thin Ice – In a Blizzard in 2011 which is a sub-series to this more encompassing photobook, in which all of the images were constructed as photograms in the darkroom. She states that this earlier artist book is “a winter of my imagination. Snow begins to fall, grows denser, and obliterates my view while exposing the cosmos. Ice shifts, opening a beautiful black void. A wondrous view as I begin my descent.”

Her subjects are tightly composed, revealing graphic blacks and white masses, the contrast of the snow against the anti-snow, the blackness of non-snow. These are ambiguous forms, if not entirely abstract, difficult to comprehend as to the relative size. She provides little context; these could be small bits found in her back yard or large slabs of free ice wondering on one of the huge inland lakes adjacent to where she resides in Minnesota. Her snow accumulates dirt and debris that over time creates molded form and shape, textures are created by the change of state of the frozen mass of water. Changes are created by the melting and then re-freezing; resulting from the cycles of day and night; warming and then freezing as the sun recedes for the night, the radiant heat slowly dissipates and a chilly wind sweeps away all of the warmth.

I find that I connect with this body of work in a number of ways, one of which is my not so fond memory of snow and ice growing up in the Midwest region of Michigan, where winters can be extremely harsh. I had to endure these freezing elements while trudging to school and back, which left lingering bad memories of blowing, freezing snow (yes, even going side-ways) while attempting to maintain my footing on slippery ice. Not that it was all bad, in fact totally beautiful while looking out on the first morning of a new snow, but regretfully that view quickly turned to nasty slush as I needed to shovel huge amounts caked onto the sideway and driveway. Perhaps a strong underlying reason we live in Southern California and take brief winter ski vacations to “visit” the snow.

This photobook published by Silas Finch is perhaps better thought of as a large production artist book as it does not have the appearance of a traditional photo book. It is printed and bound with a Leporello binding (see below), which means that each page is continuous bound to the adjoining page and the entire book can unfolded to reveal a continuous series of images that extent 34 feet in length. Once unfolded, one side is printed while the reverse (verso) is unprinted. The effect is mesmerizing and yes, I needed both my adjacent dining room and living room floors to display the book’s interior and I was still about a foot or two short of the length of space I needed. Viewing the unfurled interior from my second story studio loft is when I was able to appreciate the slight repetitiousness of the subject’s form, color, mass, lines and shapes.


A second unusual aspect of this book design is the variation in the width of the interior pages/images. There are three page widths, one that encompasses the entire width of the book, and there are two which are narrower, which creates a variation in the sequencing cadence. While looking at one of the narrower images, the reader can observe the edges of a preceding page. These overlap images are a reminder to the other images that are present and that the singular image needs to be kept within the context of the whole; thus the world of snow and ice is both layered and complex.

This is essentially a brilliantly designed book that is a reflection of McCartney’s creativity and vision, equally supported by Kevin Messina and his Silas Finch publishing team. Likewise, I also find myself looking at snow and ice differently. I selected this photobook as one of the more interesting photobooks for 2014 for Emaho Magazine, as well as here for The PhotoBook.

The photobook has stiff covers with a detachable spine (which can create an installation piece approximately 34 feet in length) and the color plates are printed with UV inks on uncoated paper with Leporello binding of the multiple panels. The interior photographs are printed full bleed, thus no pagination or captions are provided. The spine closure is printed on synthetic paper which includes an essay by Mark Alice Durant and a quote from Roger Caillois printed on the inner wrapper, which requires disassembly of the spine to access and read. The intriguing book design is by McCartney with Creative Direction by Kevin Messina and was printed in Minnesota by the Avery Group at Shapco Printing.

Previously featured on The PhotoBook is McCartney’s Bird Watching


Douglas Tockdale







August 8, 2010

Paula McCartney – Bird Watching

Copyright Paula McCartney 2010 Princeton Architectural Press courtesy of the artist

I must admit when I first saw the first announcement for Paula McCartney’s photobook Bird Watching, it drew a long yawn. I mean, OMG what were the photobook publishers thinking? When I later learned that Darius Himes had written the Afterword, I started to reconsider my initial response, such that I subsequently acquired a copy from Paula. How ironic, that for this delightful book, I am going to have to admit that I initially got it totally wrong and I will now have to eat some crow (Styrofoam, of course, as no real animals were hurt in the writing of this review).

Usually a good place to begin while reading and attempting to understand a photobook is identifying the subject or subject matter. In a wonderful way, this is not such an easy task with Bird Watching, which is a little bit more complex than the title and initial browsing reveal. Yes, it could be a bird watchers journal, until you discover the photographed birds are not real. It could be a charming fictional work, if in fact the photographs are real landscapes with real fake birds. It could be a satire on those who enjoy bird watching, or any obsessive hobby, but there is a very light and joyful aspect to this body of work, that does not feel the heavy weight of irony or a caustic narratives, but more of a wink or two between friends. I feel in the end this book is about creating an object of fantasy that relies in part on photography to help facilitate McCartney’s playful story.

McCartney has incorporated a lighthearted hand-written narrative with her delicate ink drawings in conjunction with her photographs to recreate a humorous bird watchers “trophy” journal. This is a fictional scrap book that is inclusive of various bird sightings and personal memorabilia and appears similar to one that you might suspect an actual bird watcher might compile, with an exception to photographs of the fake birds.

Her color photographs have the aesthetics of a bird photographers manual, the subject is composed somewhat central within the framework, and the depth of field is shallow, similar to the effect of a long telephoto lens that are required for photographing the real birds. The birds are sharply focused, thus making it relatively easy to determine that these in fact are not real birds, although positioned on branches in a very similar manner as to the real variety. The shallow depth of field also creates interesting landscape photographs, providing a hint of geographical context that is consistent with the location of the real variety of the fake birds depicted.

Darius Himes in his essay, states: “We’ve been trained to think of photographs as documents of things that really happened in the world: that we, through the photographer, are silent witnesses to the forces of life and nature and man. In many ways, this holds true in Bird Watching. McCartney was there, and so were those pieces of Styrofoam that look like birds. And while the initial enticement of her images leads to a brief poke in the eye, we are not so stunned as to recoil in disgust. She’s not laughing at us by drawing us into her fantasy, rather she’s playfully reminding us that all photographs indulge in certain fictions. And like any good book, she takes us on a journey that is educational and inspiring.”

McCartney’s photobook is a delightful mix of landscape photography with charming double-takes, with a witty, if not outright humorous, captions and commentary that continues in character, and provides an overall fun experience. This is one photobook that I am very happy that I gave a second chance and a photobook that I can definitely recommend.


Douglas Stockdale

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