Making Artificial Snow Natural

He likely had to wait. Perhaps he sat at Boyne Mountain Resort, sipping an Irish coffee with his feet up by the fire and a book in hand. Or maybe he was from the area, and he spent his free time developing film for other projects. It snows a lot in Michigan, but it doesn’t snow every day, and he undoubtedly wanted some fresh flakes. Eventually, however, snow fell. A white winter blanket covered Michigan, and Paul Ryan could finally trek out into the snow and take some pictures of winter in Michigan – specifically, his job was to take pictures of skiing.

“Michigan’s WInter” by Paul Ryan, Ski magazine, 1968.

In 1968, Ski magazine published a photo essay called “Michigan Winter” by Paul Ryan. Considering the purpose of the essay, his photos were surprisingly sparse of skiers. Instead, Ryan’s camera pulled him towards objects with high contrast. In his eye, dark blacks and browns stood out sharply from the brilliance of fresh sparkling snow. At the same time, the straight lines of trees broke up the otherwise pearly landscape, sectioning off the hill into long and thin sections of white.

Ryan was also enamored by rime ice and by the snow that froze to it. The trees he photographed were coated white. Sticking to the trees, while laying calmly on the ground, his pictures demonstrated the playfulness of snow. As people perused the magazine (inevitably spending more time on his inspired pictures than his terse and stagnant prose) they could not help but appreciate how the snow in Michigan settled in vertical, as well as horizontal ways. Deep in trees, the photos reminded me of a recent film “Treeline,” where skiing, it seems, was simply a catch, allowing the eye and soul to wander into a different world, with different rules, and a different way of being.

Nature photography, one would think, should stand in stark contrast to the image on the next page. There, Ryan offered an image of a snow gun. The accompanying text read, “Man’s inventiveness cakes trees with snow when nature neglects it. Clear skies and crisp cold bring out the snow guns, which are standard equipment at many Michigan ski areas. This assures consistent snow cover and a long season.”⁠ Yet, the image did not quite match the technological optimism of the caption. When he framed the snow gun, he did not do so without an appreciation for the technology. Rather, he avoided techno-optimism by diminishing the technological aspects of snow machines. In other words, he did not depict snow machines as oppositional to nature.

When he developed the photos, he carefully placed the snow gun. Ryan directed his camera towards the tree (rather than the ski slope). He placed the small black nozzle diagonally, almost perfectly parallel to the branch below it in the image. The direction the snow sprays pulls the viewer’s eye from the bottom left to the top right of the image. In the process, the eye also tracks the directionality of the branch. The relation of this image with those before reinforces a similar mystic portrayed in the previous shot. Ryan, rather than pitching the snow gun as technological, man-made, and as oppositional to the forest he had previously photographed, he integrated it into the landscape. For him, the gun was a beautiful addition to the glade behind it. Rather than separate from nature, this environmental technology was one-in-the-same. 

“Michigan’s Winter” Paul Ryan, Ski magazine, 1968.

While seemingly benign, the image took an almost political stance within ongoing debates about whether artificial snow was natural. In the earliest accounts, reviewers suggested that the snow “felt like the real thing.” This idea of manufactured snow continued. For example, in 1957, Larchmont Industries’ chief salesman William A. Walsh wrote an article in the American Ski Annual. There, he exclaimed that “man-made snow is real snow!” He continued this call within the professional and scientific world, stating in a 1974 paper published in the Eastern Snow Conference proceedings the exact same thing. “Man-made snow is real snow.” (He used this phrase so much it almost became a working catchphrase for him.) In both articles, he defended his claim by referring to the weather. To his point, as avalanche experts were studying in the West, weather events influenced man-made snow in much the same way as they influenced real snow. Once it lands on the slope, “the water continues to freeze, evaporate, or drain off after deposition, depending upon the temperature, humidity and wind velocity.” But others disagreed.

In contrast to Walsh and Ryan, meteorologists and backcountry skier Jim Steinburg recently wrote, artificial snow is more like “sleet” than real snow. Steinburg’s argument suggests that despite Walsh’s passionate battle to convince scientists that manufactured snow was in fact real, many disagreed. Often, the public sided with those like Steinburg.

Magazines and newspapers offer useful places to trace this development. In images and discourse were more likely to sway the public than scientific debates over what qualities define something as real snow or fake snow. After all, when people argued about the difference between these two types of snow, they largely relied on intellectual distinctions that were as dependent on the social production of knowledge as they were on the material reality of frozen water. The evidence these scientists explored is vague. Snow comes in many different shapes and qualities. When snowflakes are no longer a true snowflake was an arbitrary line, not a material fact. As a result, the depiction of snowmaking tells us more about how people thought about manufactured snow than they do about how natural the snow truly was.

Snowmaking, New York Times, 1950.

Most images depicting snow guns showed snow machines in opposition to nature. For example, this 1950 article from the New York Times showed pipes, stands, and hoses. In addition, in the top right corner, a man has depicted tinkering with one of the machines. Placed within an open space, the slope, the people, and the fences at the top of the run at Big Boulder all stand in contrast to the undulations of the slope and the irregular shape of trees and forest. The image suggested that the machines were separate from nature, rather than included in it.

Snowmaking, Washing Post, 1978.

Jumping forward, a 1978 picture in the Washington Post suggests that newspapers continued to favor the distinction between snow machines and natural snow, rather than working to integrate them in skiers’ minds. In this case, the photographer showed people, snow guns, and chairlifts, with one lonely tree stranded in the center of the slope. Whether to celebrate or to critique the technological process of snow creation, with images like these the media generally highlighted the technology’s distinct industrial qualities compared with the romanticized nature many skiers craved.

Ryan’s photographs are so interesting because they stand in sharp contrast to the more common imaginary regarding snowmaking. He avoided images of a snow gun blowing white plumes onto a clean-cut and straight slope. In contrast, visually burying the machine in the woods made them a part of the theoretically natural landscape in which ski resorts were embedded.

Ryan’s images offer two insights into the standing of technology in the North American ski industry in the late 1960s. First, the photo essay suggests that ski areas (presumably either Boyne or the Department of Tourism in Michigan paid for this article) were still struggling over the role of snowmaking on their resorts and in their advertisements. In other words, the cultural significance of snow guns on the experience of skiing – at least in the Midwest – was still up for grabs. So, highlighting snowmaking capacities was key. At the same time, they were deeply concerned with how this technology was highlighted. Ryan worked to make the composition match that of his other images, thereby tying it into a larger natural landscape in Michigan.

The second lesson is more about Michigan than about snowmaking itself. By 1968, much of the country knew that the most visited ski areas in the country were in Vermont, and increasingly they were aware that western resorts, such as Sun Valley, Vail, and Aspen had the best skiing in the nation. As more people skied, as snow machines brought skiing closer to cities, and as skiing technology, grooming, and snowmaking meant that more people could consider themselves expert skiers, Michigan’s small hills were increasingly unattractive to people outside the state. As a result, part of what the image suggested was that Michigan was still a place of natural wonder. Skiing, even in the Midwest, could connect people to nature, even as they worked to modify nature in technological and productive ways.

While small, these images tell us a lot about the way snowmaking is understood in the present day. While magazines and newspapers often highlight these machines as technological, in places like the North American West, the guns are often tucked away in trees, and when possible, even removed when not in use to keep from ruining the ambiance of the slopes. In effect, this battle is still going on, and it may become increasingly important as resorts suffering from climate change work to prove they can still offer the same experience of nature, even as the environment increasingly fails them.

Published by Jesse Ritner

I am pursuing my PhD in history at the University of Austin Texas. I specialize in Native American Histories, American Imperialism, environmental history.

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