HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — After having reviewed a few hundred websites over the years, it's not often that I can say, "I've never seen anything like this before," but Ashes and Snow genuinely presented me with an original experience - both in terms of its subject matter and its presentation. The latter is only available to those with high-speed connections and computers, but the former can be seen by anyone with a reasonably up-to-date browser.
At its most basic - an online photographic portfolio - the Ashes and Snow website is in fact just one component of a mammoth project by Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert, and the result of more than 30 trips to various destinations around the world over some 13 years. Documenting extraordinary interactions - indeed, moments of communion - between animals and humans, Ashes and Snow "weaves together photographic works, three 35mm films, art installations and a novel in letters."
As multifaceted as the larger project may be, its highest profile and most accessible ingredient is the collection of photographs, and as the website reveals, these images are compelling on multiple levels. First the method of production (using a photographic variation of the encaustic process to transfer the works to handmade Japanese paper) creates images which look as if they're acquisitions from a 19th-century grand tour of the world's more exotic destinations. Next, the subject matter of the photographs - scenes like a young boy reading a book to an apparently rapt elephant - draw the eye with both the event being recorded and the photographer's hand in the dramatic lighting and composition. And finally, despite the ubiquity of manipulated images throughout today's media, Colbert's claim that none of these shots is the product of digital or darkroom compositing techniques sends you back to the photographs with an even more pronounced sense of awe - if not outright skepticism.
(Just to be clear, there is compositing evident in some of the Flash-based animations, but the exhibition photographs contain only that which was present when the shutter was clicked.)
And then there is the site. For those who may not have been aware of the physical manifestation of this exhibition (which opened in Venice in 2002, has appeared in New York, and is currently residing at the Santa Monica Pier), the real-world Ashes and Snow does not appear in museums or galleries, it takes its museum with it as it travels. (A permanent home without a permanent address.) As it turns out, the website proves to be as unusual in its execution as the "Nomadic Museum" itself.
If it's at all possible, choose the high bandwidth, "Enhanced" version of the presentation. It requires both a high-speed connection and a fast CPU, but the overall impact - right from the surreal opening video/animation, which I'm not going to spoil for you - is well worth even the occasional stalls and hiccups that a borderline computers might generate. It's a Flash-based production, so it may be worth trying even if you've got a slower connection - you'll just have to wait longer for each module to download.
Inside the enhanced site, Experience presents its images through an interface that isn't so much based on navigation as discovery. Invisibly resting beneath each full-screen photograph are a selection of thumbnails which dissolve into and out of view as visitors move their mouse pointer around the screen. A click on a thumbnail loads that image into full-screen mode - with a whole new set of possibilities hidden beneath. And while each full-screen photograph has multiple thumbnails from which to choose your next tangent, the thumbnails themselves are constantly shifting beneath the visible surface, so that 'exploring your options' and then coming back to a specific spot on the screen will not necessarily reveal the same thumbnail you saw there moments ago. (Or any thumbnail at all, for that matter.) In other words, there is no systematic way to explore this exhibition, so don't even try - just relax and enjoy each new surprise.
After you've experienced Experience, Vision shares some of the backstory to the project, an introduction to the physical installation and novel, and short clips from the film. (The film clips, though short, are as dramatic in their color and lighting as the stills, and may go some way toward allaying the suspicions of the Photoshop skeptics.) A subset of images is also available at Vision, presented by way of a more conventional, but still inventive, navigational system.
Other stops include some information about the Nomadic Museum, a related educational site (with background video), and the Codex Ashes and Snow - which presents its images in a "click to turn the pages" book form. An online Bookstore - slated to open in the Spring - promises handmade books as well as posters, CDs, DVDs, and exhibition catalogues.
In terms of static visual design (easily overlooked with everything going on here), Ashes and Snow sets the mood with a "virtual parchment" environment. Low, resonant music and occasional snippets of spoken word add an audio element to the atmosphere. The music can get tiresome over longer stays, though, so a mute button is provided on every page.
If you can't manage the enhanced presentation, a basic version offers a smaller selection of images in a visitor-run slide show, and more conventional methods of presenting the supporting material. You may be missing out on the high-tech Web design, but content is always the final arbiter of any website's worth, and there is still enough of that content in the basic site to merit a tour.
In either version, pages can be very slow to load, which I expect is a factor not only of the size of the files, but also heavy Web traffic (a personal revisit on Saturday afternoon was much slower than a visit late Thursday night). If things are just moving too slowly, don't give up on the site entirely; try coming back later - after the buzz has died down or the site has been moved to a more capable server.
As for the show's name? The site says only that the source for the title is revealed in the last of 365 letters that make up the novel component of the larger project. (Though one of the fragments of poetry that play during the enhanced presentation would seem to be related.)
Ashes and Snow can be found at http://www.ashesandsnow.org.