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Interview: Douglas Levere on Photographing Snowflakes

Interview Douglas Levere on Photographing Snowflakes photo-eye Gallery’s upcoming exhibition Fire and Ice features the work and collaboration of Alan Friedman and Douglas Levere. photo-eye’s Savannah Sakry spoke with Levere regarding the art of photographing snowflakes and where his collaboration with Friedman began.
Douglas Levere | Snowflake 2014.02.09.005

photo-eye Gallery’s upcoming exhibition Fire and Ice features the work and collaboration of Alan Friedman and Douglas Levere. Fire is represented by Friedman’s telescopic images of the Sun’s surface, while Ice is demonstrated by Levere’s microscopic studies of snowflakes. The exhibition opens Friday January 29th from 5–7pm, and a gallery talk with both artists will be held Saturday January 30th at 2:00 pm. photo-eye’s Savannah Sakry spoke with Levere regarding the art of photographing snowflakes and where his collaboration with Friedman began.

Douglas Levere | Snowflake 2014.02.09.011
Savannah Sakry:     In your first project, New York Changing, you were re-photographing the same places and buildings in Bernice Abbott’s images of New York. How did you get from architecture to snowflakes?

Douglas Levere:     After my wife and I had our daughter in 2005, we moved to Buffalo where I went to college. All of the projects I was thinking about initially were architecture related and there's so much beautiful architecture here. There are these incredible grain elevators here which several people have documented, which again was a reason not to do it.

I ended up coming into a 20-hour a week job as a photographer at the University of Buffalo. Now I'm a full time photographer. It makes it very hard to do work during 9-5 that speaks to your own voice. [For your own work,] you have to photograph those things that are in a sense close to you or something that you have access to, something that you know about. This is actually an interesting parallel in the way that Alan and I both approached these projects.

When most people think of Buffalo, they have this negative connotation with snow. I realized how beautiful these snow flakes are, I wanted to embrace them and to show the beauty. It just seemed like the perfect solution.

The other thing I have to mention is that when we were looking for art for my son's room and I came across Kenneth Libbrecht's pictures of snow. He is without a doubt the preeminent snow photographer. He's a physicist at Cal Tech and he's been studying snow and photographing snow for at least 15 to 20 years.  He's even growing snowflakes now in the lab and photographing them as he grows them. I had worked in photo studios where we photographed crystal so I had a good understanding of how to light an object like that.

Douglas Levere | Snowflake 2015.01.25.003

SS:     Since we’re on lighting, can you tell me a little bit about your technical process?

DL:     I kept on trying to follow Mr. Libbrecht's direction that encourages you to buy expensive parts from Thor Labs, which is where any researcher is going to go buy their microscope parts or their lab parts. That stuff's really expensive and I kept on trying to get the right part from these people over the phone. I'd order it. I'd wait a few days. I'd get it. It was the wrong part. It wouldn't satisfy what I needed to connect my microscope to this lens I had. Then I realized, I understand how they do this photographically. I need the microscope, the stage at the bottom to raise and lower the slide to focus, but as far as I was concerned, I didn't need the lenses, the turret that holds the lenses. In a sense it's the part that I can't translate from microscope language to photographic language. I'm like, "I'll just cut this out," so I took a Sawzall and I cut the tearing off of my microscope. Then I took some pieces of wood and some screws and I basically mounted a wooden stand on the back of the microscope that I could attach my camera to. I figured if I had a camera and a tube, and you have light going through a tube, it’s basically all you need. As long as it's the right distance away, you can focus.

SS:     I love that you took the Sawzall out and made it happen.
Levere with his personally constructed microscope
camera in Buffalo, New York 2014
© Buffalo News | Mark Mulville

DL:     That's what I did. I had the microscope lens and I have my tube and then the camera. I don’t have to deal with the connections to the microscope any more. Underneath for the light, I'm using a basic strobe, you know, flash that would go on top of your 35-mm camera and that's attached through a wire. It basically passes the light underneath the snowflake and there's translucent quality underneath.

The other thing I haven't necessarily mentioned here, in order to photograph the snowflakes there are anywhere from say 10 to 50 exposures. There's one picture that's a single frame in the exhibit but most of them are anywhere from 10 to 50, and so you have to do something called focus stacking. You are focusing on the part of the snowflake that's farthest away and then you keep on doing small adjustments until you get to the top of it. You'll then work to either pull that all back together on the computer usually in Photoshop.

SS:     I’m curious for comparison, which image is a single exposure?

DL:     It's the one in it where there's 12 legs, as we say, or 12 branches of the flake, but it's because there's two flakes sitting there on top of each other so there's two six-sided snowflakes on top of each other and there's other flakes around. I'm trying to get as much a depth of field as possible but that one is just one exposure.

Douglas Levere | Snowflake 2014.02.09.007

SS:     How did you and Alan meet and how did the collaboration between you start?

DL:     I have a business where my studio is. It's in a big old Ford plant that's in the middle of the city called Tri-Main and I've been in there for five or six years. Alan also has a business in that building. He makes silkscreen greeting cards and they've been doing that for like 30 years. I think he must be one of the only places that make hand pulled silkscreen greeting cards. They're beautiful — they're phenomenal. Every two years, there's a party called Tri-Mania. It's an event that basically builds up the money for an art studio. The building turns into a big party, the whole place — there are bands all over the building and people doing performance art and businesses and artists and photographers will have their studios open for people to come in. It was there about two-and-a-half years ago that I saw Alan's pictures for the first time. I was finally able to get out of my studio at the end of the event and I came across him and we kept on talking and talking.  I was so interested in his solar photography that he had on the wall there. I think it was maybe a little more than a year ago that I asked him, what if we were to show our work together? I thought it would create a dynamic quality that neither will achieve on it's own. He pretty much agreed right away.

SS:     I think separately both bodies of work are strong but they're really incredible when you see them together. I love the juxtaposition and conversation of scale.

DL:     It’s never ending.

SS:     Is there anything in particular you would like to express to viewers?

DL:     Everybody has access to the same objects. It's amazing. You don't have to go far to find beauty.

SS:     The magic is happening all around you. It's even in your backyard, like in your case.

DL:     You just have to look. You just have to look and find it. It's there. It's there wherever you are. You just have to find it.

Levere placing snowflakes on slides to be photographed. | 2014 © Buffalo News | Mark Mulville

Fire and Ice opens this Friday January 29th and will be on view at photo-eye Gallery through April 9th, 2016. For any additional information, or are interested in purchasing a print please contact:
Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 x 121 or