For those of us who don’t live in a completely weather-tight home, frost on a window is a commonplace of wintry mornings in St. George. But in 2010 Martinsville resident and macro-photographer Elizabeth Root Blackmer began to realize that the ordinary frost she was seeing on her farmhouse windows had become provocative enough to take out her camera.
“I think that on the edge of our vision there’s more we’d like to see, just as we’d like to see the stars better. The main thing with macro-photography is that you get to explore just a little more detail than you can actually see. But you sort of know what it is or you may know or not know—it is on the edge of that. You can play with ambiguity about what it is or you can choose it where you know what it is but you see a bit more. That arouses curiosity, to see a little more than what you’re used to. And that’s what happens with the frost images.”
After eight winters of photographing her farmhouse’s frost, Blackmer sent LensWork a submission of 70 images for possible publication, resulting in an extraordinary 23-page color spread of 28 of Blackmer’s photographs titled “Farmhouse Frost” in December 2018. LensWork, its homepage stresses, is “a bimonthly photography publication about photographs (rather than cameras!),” with “articles, interviews and portfolios all about images and the creative process.”
Blackmer, who is now retired from a career in academia, says she “ended up doing photography on the two ends of my career.” She first became interested in photography in high school and then continued with it in college (while studying fine arts at Harvard) and graduate school (while getting a PhD in communication research at Stanford). Macro photography was an early interest.
“In my teens I discovered that I could reverse a lens, tape it to my camera, and explore a new world,” she noted in the introduction to her LensWork “Farmhouse Frost” spread. But time for photography soon gave way to other priorities—her family (she and husband Hugh raised two children) and her academic career. It wasn’t until 2008, after retirement, that she found herself wanting to learn digital photography and to start taking pictures again. Coincidentally, an invitation from their son to come to California to watch him and his wife run in the Big Sur marathon, she says, provided an unexpected impetus to do just that.
“There were several events of different distances connected with the marathon and Hugh and I decided we would do the 21-mile walk while the younger ones did the 26.2-mile marathon. We had to train for that during the winter because the marathon was in May. But walking all winter, I thought I’d get bored so I said, okay, I’ll take a picture every day and post it publicly on Flickr. So that was the way I reentered the world of photography.”
Those 2008 shots were taken around the roads of St. George—pictures of nature, houses and anything that caught Blackmer’s interest.
“Then I got a macro lens in the late winter of 2010. I went crazy! That was just what I wanted! But I wanted to get even closer to my subjects so very soon I also got extension tubes which go between the lens and the camera and they allow more magnification. That launched me into my macro-photography.” Between getting this new equipment and Maine’s house-confining wintery days, the ever-changing patterns of frost on her home’s windows became a compelling photographic focus.
One of the things she likes about macro-photography, Blackmer says, is that “there’s something familiar about the subject matter even if you don’t know what it is. And one of the things I see is that there are patterns you can observe in macro-photography that you observe at other scales. For instance, I took a picture of some sand ripples at Drift Inn beach and I saw that they looked like mountain ranges, that they looked like they were taken from an airplane. I like to have that ambiguity in my photographs, where you don’t know the scale.” The frost in most of her images, she notes, covers an area of only about one square-inch although the pictures don’t give any indication of that.
Blackmer also observes that with her frost images, in particular, there are aspects that are philosophical. “You look at a photo of frost and it is inorganic, but there it is reminding us of patterns that we see in feathers or ferns that are organic. So there are patterns that cross the organic/inorganic boundary, our perception of what that seemingly fundamental distinction is.”
In addition, if at one level Blackmer’s frost images are fascinating as records of what randomly-occurring conditions produce, these photographs also owe a great deal to her manipulations of those images. “I like to play with the lines, and with the boundaries of the photograph and how those interact. I also sometimes intensify the colors that the frost picks up. There’s quite a few elements to what I’m doing.”
Although the December spread in LensWork represents what Blackmer feels is a body of work that is complete and can stand on its own, she says she’ll persist in taking pictures of frost, noting that she just recently posted a new frost photo on Flickr. “Still,” she admits with a wry smile, “these days the frost has to be pretty attractive to me for me to get out the camera and go for it.”—JW
Blackmer’s frost images were taken with a Nikon D800 or D5000, a 60mm macro lens and a 36mm extension tube, braced against the inner window pane. Further information about Blackmer and her work can be found at www.brootphoto.com. There will be a show of her photographic work this summer at Granite Gallery in Tenants Harbor from July 12-17, with an opening reception with live music and refreshments on July 12 from 5-8pm.
PHOTOS: Elizabeth Root Blackmer