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.
Tradescantia – photographs and prints by Tony Clancy
Alongside the lightboxes at Jor Bagh are a series of framed images of tradescantia flowers. These are original handmade prints, made using either the cyanotype process (blue) or salt printing (sepia / brown). These processes were among the first used to make photographs and involve coating ordinary papers with light-sensitive chemicals.
Prints made this way always show the flawed hand of their maker. We are used to seeing mechanically and digitally perfect photographs, consistent however many times they are reproduced. Here, each image is slightly different, and the texture of the paper and brushes used affect the final image. (The same process was used to print Juhi Saklani’s images in the exhibtion).
The tradescantia flowers are native to South America. They are small (perhaps a centimeter across), a deep violet-blue colour. The blooms last for just a day. These pictures were made by putting them on a flatbed scanner and making high resolution scans that show objects differently to how we see them with our eyes alone with details and forms revealed in a new light. Scanning them this way also shows that each flower is (like the prints) unique with various imperfections; petals come in different shapes, some have holes or are misshapen in some way. This series then is about the glitches in nature and hand made images that go against industrial reproducibility.
Tradescantia plants were named after Sir John Tradescant, a plant collector from 17th century England who contributed to the global spread of species across continents, enriching our gardens but sometimes at the cost of damaging local ecosystems.
The Digital Bouquet by Tony Clancy – Jor Bagh station, New Delhi. (part of the Garden Underground exhibition)
What is the difference between a garden in India and one in Europe ? In many respects not as great as we might expect. Of course there are many trees and plants found in India that do not grow in northern Europe, chilled as it is by cold dark winters. On the other hand, there are many plants and flowers common to both – dahlias, nasturtiums, chrysanthemums are reassuringly familiar to those who visit one from the other.
Plants have traveled across the world for thousands of years, hitching a lift with explorers, traders, collectors and invaders. As humans developed an insatiable need to travel, plants went along for the ride. In the 17th century, the Dutch brought this to new heights. Great global traders of luxury goods, they began an industry based on an imported flower –the tulip from Persia – and turned it into both the world’s first bubble commodity and a national icon.
Dutch painters at the same time were freed from the need to portray religious themes and turned their attention to the secular and the everyday, showing domesticity, work and leisure in some of the most notable figurative art in European painting. Among their themes were bouquets. Set typically in dark rooms with shafts of side lighting, they showed flowers from the Americas intermingled with Peonies from China – rare and expensive items then – next to more humble natives such as cornflowers. The seasons the flowers actually grow in were ignored, these were an artificial world, however realistically they were painted.
The Digital Bouquet embraces the exuberant theatricality of these famous images. Light and colour are used to make a heightened world that evokes a garden in its height of flowering (in reality an all too short time). A photographic aesthetic is used to make the grid and the montage placing of fragments against each other. It hopes to give Jor Bagh station an enjoyable evocation of the actual parks and gardens that lie above it.
And among the flowers are represented some of creatures that the whole spectacle was originally evolved for – insects.
The exhibtion started with the offer of Jor Bagh metro station in New Delhi as a space to put on an exhibtion. Tony Clancy, a lecturer in photography at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham, UK, decided to take up this offer and remembered a piece of writing by (then) Delhi based writer and publisher Anita Roy, about gardens in Delhi, gardens in England, and the people who look after them, either for pleasure or work (http://anitaroy.net/2014/01/two-gardens/). And so began the collaboration that led to the Garden Underground project.
The collaboration extended to include Delhi based photographer Juhi Saklani who was commissioned to make images of gardeners, the people whose knowledge, skills and labour actually make our green spaces places of beauty in our increasingly frantic and distracted urban world.
Arati Kumar- Rao was asked to contribute too and travelled to Jodhpur where film maker and environmentalist Prideep Krishen is working to restore a desert garden , where native plants and eco systems are under constant threat by invasive trees brought in as garden specimens.
Tony Clancy’s own large lightbox piece harks back to classic Dutch paintings of bouquets of flowers, produced with astonishing skill and productivity in 17th century Holland. This piece aims to capture the sheer exuberance of flowering plants and to fill Jor Bagh with colour. Tony also presents a set of hand made prints that use processes from the earliest days of photography, cyanotype and salt printing.
Gardens – places of both pleasure, and contemplation, an essential counterbalance to the demands and distractions of the world. An oasis where we can reconnect with ourselves.
The Garden Underground is an exhibition of photographs that has been made specially for the Jor Bagh metro station, in the heart of New Delhi. The makers of the show bring a celebration of gardens into the busy subterranean world of commuters, reconnecting the environment there with the parks and green spaces above.
The show is a response to a number of starting points: to the space itself, to a piece of writing on gardens across different cultures and countries, to the work that makes them possible, and to a garden in Jodhpur where plants bring their own problems.
Themes running through and behind the work include consequences good and bad arising from human manipulation of the plant world, how plants and flowers have been shown to us by photographers and artists, how these plants have become travellers across the world and plants as a spectacle bringing life to urban lives.