Capturing the unique beauty of snowflakes
Dr. Jason Persoffhe listens to the storms in the same way he listens to the patients: unhurriedly, questioningly, observing details that indicate antecedents and environmental elements that influence and shape the present moment.
And just as your patients have anatomy and physiology that influence their treatment decisions, storms also have a body and structure that inform everything from how you position your camera and where you point it, to how long you stay on your porch with a black camera. woolen sock spread out in a storm, catching snowflakes.
“My neighbors may think it’s a bit weird,” admits Persoff.
Persoff, associate professor of hospital medicine in it University of Colorado School of Medicine, is a nationally and internationally recognized storm chaser For more than two decades, he has carved a unique niche for himself at the nexus of his passions for extreme weather and photography.
He is particularly known for his extraordinary macro photography of snowflakes that define the fascinating detail and fleeting beauty of individual flakes. A exhibition of his photography titled “Every One Is Unique: Photographs by Jason Persoff, MD” will be on view from January 31 to March 23 at the Fulginiti Pavilion art gallery on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
“One of the most important things about my photography is that it makes people stop and consider,” explains Persoff. “When I hold my camera, it’s like a warm sweater on a cold day, it’s just comfortable. It also keeps me attentive and grounded in the moment. Photography allows me to have and then share the most incredible experiences.”
Capture the weather as a feeling
For as long as he can remember, Persoff has been mesmerized by storms. Growing up in Aurora, he was fascinated by the tornadoes that sometimes touched down there. He remembers watching “Night of the Twisters,” a documentary about deadly F5 tornadoes that touched down in Xenia, Ohio, in April 1974, probably in the second grade “and I was hooked,” he recalls. “I always wanted to experience them and I was excited when the sirens went off.”
Around the same time, he was cultivating a growing interest in photography, so his parents gave him a Polaroid camera for his eighth birthday.
“I loved taking photos and I loved that Polaroid, but you’d get 10 photos and that’s it,” he says. “And usually at least one of them would be totally screwed. My dad had a Pentax SLR that he lent me one day, so I took a ton of photos and he was very impressed with the quality.”
Persoff’s father encouraged him to save for his own SLR, which he did and bought his own Pentax in fifth grade. In the spring of that year, a series of thunderstorms hit Aurora “and I remember trying to frame the clouds to capture the feeling of these incredible storms,” he says. “I remember consciously thinking about that, and it sort of started my journey to framing heaven as a feeling or an emotion, as an experience.”
love winter again
Over breakfast one day as a college student, Persoff read a USA Today story about two storm chasers and the proverbial lightning bolt. “Until then, I had never considered the possibility that you don’t have to stay still, that you can move with the weather,” says Persoff.
Not long after, he met his wife and they began chasing storms while he was in medical school, Persoff learning through trial and error how to photograph cloud formations and newborn tornadoes and lightning forks.
“I could use six rolls of film and not have lightning,” he recalls with a laugh. “Or, if I had one, it would be out of focus. Luckily, there were these one-hour photo spots where you only had to pay for the photos you kept, so I was always looking for them.”
After moving to Florida for his residence and his first few years on a hospital staff, Persoff and his family returned to Colorado, where he discovered that he did not enjoy the snow.
“It was fun when I was a kid, but when I got to medical school it really sucked because I had to drive to different hospitals and I learned to hate winter,” he says. “When we got back to Colorado, I knew I had to find something to help me enjoy the winter.”
Browsing the internet one day, he came across a photo of a snowflake taken by a Canadian photographer. for Komarechka. That can’t be a real snowflake, Persoff remembers thinking, but it was. He approached Komarechka, who began giving Persoff advice, and bought Komarechka’s book “Sky Crystals: Unraveling the Mysteries of Snowflakes.”
“So, I tried to photograph some snowflakes,” he says, “and now I love winter.”
seeing every detail
Geography plays a large part in Persoff’s love of winter. Northern Colorado has the right combination of temperature, altitude, and humidity for stellar dendrites, a somewhat rare type of snowflake with six branches and fern-like crystalline structures emanating from them.
“Most snow isn’t beautiful,” says Persoff. “You might get a lot of small pellets, but not actual flakes, so we’re very lucky here and in the northern Canadian Rockies to get stellar dendrites.”
Armed with Komarechka’s advice, as well as his own knowledge of photography and weather, Persoff embarked on a journey to learn more with each storm. He learned that spreading a black woolen sock in the falling snow can help him catch individual flakes, which he photographs with a ring light, sets of extension tubes on his lens, and limitless patience.
You’ve learned that not every storm produces a snowflake image worth keeping, and releasing the shutter is often the first in a multi-step process. Some of the most intricate and detailed final photographs of him are the result of up to 40 images superimposed during the photo editing process.
Persoff also detailed his snowflake photography process in a YouTube video series covering topics like how to light snowflakes, the equipment to use, and how to do it all on a budget.
“I think of Don Komarechka, who was so kind to teach me, and I feel like I want to return the favor,” says Persoff. “It is not for me to have the copyright on the appearance of the snow. I want people to stop and enjoy this. Very often we just deal with the consequences, and ice on the road and discomfort bother us. But when you consider the trillions of these falling flakes, and each one is unique and so beautiful and transient.
“As much time as I spend listening to a patient’s story, when I’m in the moment photographing a snowflake, I take the time to see every detail, and it really opened up my world. It allows me to be present, to be alone in that moment and really see.”