Harnessing history after snow melts

Some tips to help preserve event in words and images

February 11, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

So you lived through the great snow of 2010. But will you remember it by anything other than a blinding snapshot of white?

"All of this will be ephemera and will disappear unless there's some effort to collect it and institutionalize it," said Maryland archivist Edward C. Papenfuse, who's pushing for an electronic archive. "It's very important from the standpoint of understanding community history."

Not to mention personal history. People across the Mid-Atlantic are Tweeting, Facebooking, photographing and recording the storm - Snowmaggedon? Snowpocalypse? Snownami? - for nostalgia's sake and something to do.

But distinguishing this singular event from another can be tricky. Twenty years from now, one snow photo looks pretty much like another. And that blog post saying you shoveled lots of white stuff doesn't really capture the back-breaking weight.

We talked with experts in three fields - videography, photography and writing - to glean their best tips for how regular people can chronicle the storm with the same kind of creativity being used to name it.

The Writing Program masters students in Joanne Cavanaugh-Simpson's class at the Johns Hopkins University usually have essay assignments. Next week's topic was a no-brainer: the storm.

"Five hundred words or less, one single event that shows what the storm's all about," she said. She has already done her homework, documenting the "Snowstorm of Historic Proportions" through a blogged trip to a Michaels arts and craft store that was surprisingly open Sunday.

Story Tell it like you're telling a friend, with that same informality and pared-down language.

Dialogue Include it. There "needs to be some kind of exchange ... hopefully showing some kind of experience that's universal," she said. (Two grocery shoppers lamenting the lack of bread feels universal about now.)

Observe "Mainly, it's listening, looking and seeing something that's unusual," Cavanaugh-Simpson said.

Describe Show, don't tell, as editor types are fond of saying. Don't just say the road was slippery - tell us how you know. Maybe a dog walker slid sideways while trying to tug her charge along, or a salt truck spun 720 degrees. "It's a blinding, white snow. Tell me how."

Remember that old art joke about a sheet of white paper actually being an image of a polar bear in a snowstorm? Or maybe it's that backyard shot you took of the 4-foot-high snowdrift.

"Contrast," said Sun senior photo editor Jerry Jackson, can be a challenge. Newspaper snow photos almost always have someone doing something in them that breaks up the whiteness and adds interest.

Jackson and deputy news photo director Jeffrey F. Bill have a combined 35 years of experience at The Baltimore Sun. Here are some of their tips:

To flash or not to flash Try going without for night shots, to preserve the ambient light, and for daytime snow shots; otherwise, your subject will likely only appear in silhouette.

Pan For those high-speed sledding pictures, slow your shutter speed a bit and follow your kid with the camera, catching the shot midhill. The sledder should be in focus, while the background is blurred, conveying movement.

Shutter Slow it down to catch streaks of snow, rather than still-life flaky dots.

Try a tripod You're shakier than you think.

Fells Point videographer Jacquie Greff, who got so wrapped up in filming the storm that she slipped and fell in the middle of a shot, offers these tips:

Details They're much more interesting than a wide shot of nothing. Focus on the small things that have meaning: a fallen tree limb, a car buried to its antenna. "Short shots of things like that, that you put together, tell a better story than a big picture of a street," Greff said.

Talk Describe what's happening as you're shooting a scene, the feel of the wind, the reason you're there, what's missing.

Edit "You only need a few seconds to see something and take it in and then go on to the next thing."

Action Shoot an event, like neighbors banding together to clear a street, fell a precarious tree or free a stuck car.

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