Huang Xu is a contemporary artist who brings us back to the classic beauty of the flower. After photographing plastic rubbish with meticulous studio lighting and depth of detail, he came back to a subject with a tradition in Chinese art going back at least a thousand years.
Softly lit and sensuous, the flowers emerge from deep darkness. They have a cool restraint, and refresh again the genre by bringing our attention back to the fascinating strangeness of flowers. The flower becomes a precious object again as it was when 17th century Dutch painters made pictures of bouquets.
The Starn Twins, Michael and Douglas, make images that are balanced on the edge of beauty.
Here is a commonplace rose, in itself like any one of the thousands that a Google search throws up, but then the familiar is made strange by using antique printing processes (like those used by the Pictorialists a hundred years before them). The image is segmented with torn edged and overlaying sections. Instead of photography’s illusion of three dimensional objects, we are made aware of the flat paper that holds the image.
Like montage artists, they bring us back to the photograph as an object. Unlike most montage artists, they don’t jolt us with a disjointed and pointed humour. Their image is instead melancholic with its sombre tones, holding a sense of the fragility of both the rose and the photographic print. There is the montage artist’s need to destroy images and old ideas in order to make something new. In this image, perhaps a sense of something torn apart in anger, then pieced together again out of regret for the loss and a nostalgic wish to remake it again.
In the 1920s and 30s, American and European art photography reacted against the self conscious sentimentality of Pictorialism, and an industrial aesthetic that reflected the realities of 20th century life began to become more important. Flower photography was rejected by many photographers as having a 19th century feyness at odds with the modern world.
Edward Weston looked for new subject matter: cabbages, capsicums, deserts, industrially produced toilet bowls – anything except flowers it seemed. Flowers were not thrown out of the modernist vase altogether and there are many memorable examples of modernist images of flowers, such as Karl Blossfeld. Trained as a sculptor, Blossfeld makes flowers look like hard objects, sculpted from steel rather than grown in gardens.
The use of hard light and high contrast draws our attention to the structure of each plant he photographs. Looking at them, we become aware of how they are held up, the strength in the fibres that makes them, as well as the complexity of their forms. They appear to have been engineered.
He only shows us perfect specimens, emblematic of their species. They are rigorous and shown without sentimentality or embelishment. This is an industrial beauty for an industrial age, far, for example, from Jan Breughel’s lavish and sensuous paintings of flowers, though there is a shared a depth of observation and an ability to show this with great clarity.
John Blakemore’s tableaux of tulips show a dark side of flower photography. Blakemore says that his interest was aroused by the gestures cut tulips make as they open and writhe when cut. He began photographing them in polite vases in his kitchen, until the work evolved a very different style.
There is a disturbing beauty to this black and white series. The side lighting in the image above is classic and could come from one of Vermeer’s windows, but we see these plants in their death throes. The bulbs and roots, usually hidden in the darkness of soil, are seen alongside the flower heads which have opened up and lost their familiar shape, They are at the point where most people would discard them – no longer the idealized specimens that Mapplethorpe presents. Blakemore’s tulips are Gothic, close to death, the petals suck the light from the image unlike those in classic Dutch paintings that bring a glowing illumination to dark interiors. Chaos and entropy take over as familiar beauty gives way. These are not idealized luxury commodities that many images of flowers seduce us with, these bring us back to soil and the nature that tulips spring from and return to every year.
We can today see shadows of plants from around 170 years ago captured in the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, a 19th Century botanist who used the (then new) process to make images of plants as scientific studies.
These are not strictly photographs as we usually think of them but photograms, 2 dimensional representations made using real specimens. In some ways they are like pressed flowers in an album with a flattened perspective (we are used to photographs as tromp l’oeil illusions of three dimensionality). They give an abstracted but entirely faithful image of the myriad of details that make each species and each specimen unique. Translucent areas are given a ghostly feel that powerfully evokes the visual presence of a once living plant that has long since withered and died. These are traces of specific plants, not generic representations interpreted through drawing or painting, preserved in time.
Intended as scientific records, her subjects encompass the vast diversity of plants that nature had evolved; their aesthetic qualities are a by-product of her work, though this is a large part of why they are appreciated to this day.
Alongside the Garden Underground exhibition there are writing workshops at the Habitat Centre, New Delhi aimed at finding some new ways to think about photographs, which feeds in to how we take photographs. The workshop will look at some themes and images from the exhibition itself.
There are some short essays posted up in the blog WritingAboutPicturesAboutGardens which look at the work of some classic and contemporary photographers who have approached the subject of plants and flowers in very different ways. We welcome contributors to this section.