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More than just a photo portfolio

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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.)

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