The Theatre Gallery inside the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts is a warm, welcoming exhibit space for artist Scotty Craighead, who grew up in nearby Kelly, within the renowned Craighead family of biologists. His Nov. 16 gallery talk was attended by dozens of what seemed to be good friends alternating between reverential silence and exuberant queries. Craighead’s articulate and outgoing presentation style set the tone for a casual lunchtime discussion that enhanced visitors’ enjoyment of the artwork, as deeper understanding usually does. But the 14 large-scale, sumptuous photographs also stand just fine on their own.
Printed in black and white on metallic paper (a more subtle and elegant effect than those words suggest), and sandwiched under crystal-clear acrylic, each 40-by-60-inch work presents a sparkling high-contrast world of ice and dark water. Through macro photography, the original scale of just a few inches across expands into an immersive experience, recreating the sense that one’s nose could almost touch the ice. Taken literally, the close-up studies of pond and river water transforming into and out of a solid state are hauntingly beautiful and can be enjoyed on the level of much nature photography. But because the empirical subject is made abstract and foreign by vast scale, and by transformation from digital color to black and white, it can easily be interpreted more personally.
Craighead’s lens captures textures ranging from silkily mucosal through delicately lacelike to painfully granular. Ice extends across myriad backdrops — sometimes the black velvet of deep, still water; sometimes a dappled surface, suggesting water in motion over hidden objects, possibly something living.
As arrested water, ice is a perfect metaphor for photography itself, which freezes a moment in life. We like to believe that photographs immortalize something or someone, and they occasionally come close. Yet an intimate photograph of ice in an instant of forming and un-forming is also a memento mori, a reminder of death. Some ice lasts many thousands of years, but the ice we normally encounter — like so much else — does not.
Though influenced by the scientific method and passionate about the natural world, Craighead is not a scientist but a trained artist with other extensive bodies of work to his credit, all grounded in observation, research, and interpretation. Thematically narrow and traditional in its obedience to aesthetic principles, “Ice Chronicles” is an outlier when compared to Craighead’s earlier landscape collages and wildlife sculpture. Those emphasize the disruption of familiar items (outdoor photographs, wooden furniture) and the recombination of parts into irreverent new forms.
Craighead does, in fact, describe the evolution of these images as different from his usual process. In 2013, during winter dog walks along the Snake River walking path and Emily’s Pond, his attention was captured by light falling on ice. Informed by snowflake microscopy and books about the properties of ice, he began photographing ice taking shape along the river, planning to make more collages related to his previous series. The resulting images followed his accustomed themes: broken and mended boundaries, transformation, ambiguity and surprise. But the power and purity in these photographs demanded a new direction. To do justice to their lush austerity, Craighead opted to forgo color for the rich tonal qualities of a limited palette. He also adopted new techniques and acquired equipment that would help him address new challenges (the extreme cold, the vagaries of light, and the necessity to capture minute detail, to name a few).
Armed with a Sony a7RII 42-megapixel camera and 90mm macro lens, he shot thousands of images over the ensuing winters, usually without a tripod in natural light. To capture scenes in limited light while preserving greater depth of field (sharp focus on elements at various distances from the lens), Craighead learned to use a small stand equipped with a rail, which would allow him to shoot multiple frames of the same scene, all in focus regardless of distance. He would shoot, then advance the camera on the rail a short distance, and shoot again, repeating until he had enough images to create a focused composite image in Photoshop through its stacking feature. The crispness and three-dimensional quality of these photos is remarkable.
“Ice Chronicles” is not science, but it bridges art and science with its ability to elicit reverie, wonder, and curiosity about the natural world. Surely this is partly what inspired naturalists of previous centuries to investigate natural phenomena, and still inspires scientists today.
Art and science are as essential, and as messy, as everything else that comes from human beings. Currently we feel confusion and heat surrounding our priorities, as if our political and cultural survival depended on choosing one extreme stance or another and proclaiming its unilateral perfection. When art itself isn’t being minced into political hash, it is held to be the opposite of science. This is troubling in a society that has chronically doubted the value of art because it is not more like science. Perhaps inevitably, today many people doubt the value of science, suspecting it is too much like art. Unless we are able to embrace integrity as well as ambiguity, and accept as well as dignify the entire spectrum, we become prisoners of fundamentalist thinking. Frozen in place.
Ice Chronicles: Moments of Flux in the Snake River Cryosphere, Photography by Scotty Craighead, will be on display at the Theatre Gallery in the Center for the Arts in Jackson through January 8, 2018.
More of Scotty Craighead’s artwork can be seen at www.scottycraighead.com.
Sue Sommers is an artist in Pinedale, Wyoming, and a regular contributor to Studio Wyoming Review.