One collector’s obsession with photographs of winter’s most ephemeral friend.
Written by Gideon Jacobs
Snowmen don’t last. Photos do. The camera’s ability to memorialize what is ephemeral is part of what makes the backyard sculptures of winter so photographable. We grow eager to freeze time when we realize a hard-earned creation won’t remain frozen for long.
The artist Eric Oglander suspects this has something to do with why there are so many old snapshots of snowmen. Oglander, who describes himself as a “collector of aesthetics,” remembers first encountering a snowman photo when doing a cursory eBay search for “antique photographs.” “The idea for the collection clicked immediately,” he said. “After I saw one, I started buying every snowman I found compelling.”
His collection now contains hundreds of photographs. Most depict seemingly middle and upper-middle-class families, many from North America and some from Europe: Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, France. All the images were made in the era of black and white processed film, the earliest dating back to the late 19th century. The identities of both the photographers and the subjects are unknown.
Even with its size and sweep, the collection as a whole conveys a sense of sincerity and sweetness. The human subjects, whether soldiers taking a break on a military base or a family smiling for a holiday card, are captured at a moment of respite from winter’s claustrophobia. During a season best spent inside, a big snowfall is the great universal excuse to leave the house — to ignore the elements for the sake of play.
This quality of innocence is only heightened by the fact that these images were made in times when the act of taking a photograph was an event itself, not the compulsive reflex it is today.
Oglander has long been interested in vernacular photography. He is the creator of the viral Instagram account Craigslist Mirrors, a collection that later became a book and a gallery show. His work with found photographs is part of a general fascination with objects that are aesthetically interesting but that were made primarily with utility in mind.
“Art made without the intention of being art has a certain ‘integrity,’” Oglander said. For him, the beauty of these objects emerges as a byproduct of another process, or are even completely accidental: the fortuitous overexposure of an image, a subject holding a delightfully awkward pose.
Photographs of snowmen, then, hold a kind of double appeal for Oglander. The images were made to capture a memory, but the snowmen were made just for fun — themselves a kind of “melting folk art.”
Using snow to create a crude human facsimile is, Oglander points out, an age-old practice. “The Inuit would sculpt snowmen and snow-animals to use for target practice,” Oglander said. The fact that the structures had practical uses in the past, he said, deepens the meaning of the collection.
“Seeing one of these photographs is neat. Seeing 300 creates a thread through human history that ties us together,” he said.
“That might sound sappy, but that’s okay.”