Flora Imaginaria: The Flower in Contemporary Photography features more than 70 images created by 49 internationally acclaimed photographers. Below are individual artist statements about each work.
Since I began my brief life as a photographer, I have always tried to imitate painting, not photography, without resorting to any special technique except waiting for the light that comes through the windows. My only task has been to wait for the exact moment, which varies depending on the season, and at times it’s a matter of a very few minutes. Without intending to, I was photographing the passing of time, in the light and in the flowers. I don’t know if I could have achieved all this digitally, but, for me, the physicality of it all was essential, the painted wood, the light from the window—almost always different—and the various vases of glass, resin, or ceramic, as well as the decomposing flowers. It was a real adventure. I hope the photos bear witness to my pleasure and joy while I was taking them.
I am a photographer. I mainly work on projects that develop over a period of several years. In my work I keep looking for new means of expression, which creates a fascinating interplay between the depiction of reality and enigmatic abstraction. I focus on everyday objects and situations. I try to see the world from unusual perspectives through my camera. My free combination with materials results in still lifes (sometimes staged), collages, and minimalist colour and light experiments. I am interested in what lies behind things, the world of thought behind what you can obviously see. The individual works are like visual poems for me. Emotional power always plays a formative role in my work. The immersion in new worlds, to move on uncertain paths and to take new approaches, stimulates me in my artistic work.
A collection of flowers and petals from several different species includes lotus, peony, carnation, rose blossom, and holly, with ferns, castor-oil plant, and ivy leaves. Flora that would not normally exist at the same flowering time in nature but are presented in this arrangement brought together by the sea. Fake blooms that gave pleasure to many, perhaps displayed in a vase that once adorned a room. They now continue their journey as suspended plastic pollution recovered from the South China Sea and areas around Hong Kong. The grouping of seemingly ‘natural flowers’ represents a bigger picture of the disturbing statistics of man-made plastic items that have no boundaries.
These images were created in a camera obscura, a room-sized camera that is operated from the inside, using two distinct analogue processes. One is a simple paper negative, the other is produced using a complex colour-reversal process that I have been developing over the last four years. These are wild flowers local to where I live, which I collect on morning walks and then carefully arrange in front of the camera to be photographed. Each one is unique, captured directly on photographic paper. The process is long and laborious and the photographs hard to achieve; it can take up to eight hours to create a successful exposure. As the ambient temperature in the room shifts, the colour balance fluctuates and the chemical concentration changes, [and] so too does the resultant image, meaning no two images will ever look the same. These are representations of flowers, of course, but they are also signs of a complex improvisation with chemicals, paper, light, and time. I do not know what the image is going to be like at the start of the process; each one is a small revelation. Sometimes the strangeness of the result positions the everyday motif of the flowers in a new hybrid space between the chemical and natural, a fusion of the tradition of art that celebrates the transience of flowers, and a process that steals them away into an uncanny, chromatic image of an apparently permanent and artificial afterlife.
The Black-Eyed Susan series references the codification of female beauty in the 1950s. It is defined by its rigid, artificially ‘mounted’ forms (hair, jewelry, make-up) and recalls certain conventional icons of the day. But such is the fusion between the figure and the vegetal elements that the stereotype is dissolved in an organic, liquid flux: the icon reveals the mystery and charm of a creature coming into bloom.
Within the frame of the Enquête Neuchâteloise, a photographic survey of the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel, I propose a census and an imagery of its flora, setting them within a strong historical context, going back and forth [between now and] the past. The status of these flowers—common, protected, invasive, or even extinct—guided my visual approach and led me to develop seven photographic series in which I have brought together several disciplines and their different perspectives on nature. Botany, scientific imagery, and history have informed my approach and nourished my explorations as much as the prospecting of my own walks. In the twenty-first century, Neuchâtel’s municipalities are flourishing, as they did in the time of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, a key figure in the field of botany in the canton of Neuchâtel, [and someone] to whom I often refer. Produced with a scanning electron microscope, these images present flowers in a poetic and unexpected way. The promenades also allude to Rousseau and his experience of the land. The pleasure of discovery is based on the creation of ‘blind’ images. ‘Invasive’ refers to undesirable plants, those whose spread threatens to choke other plants. This floral colonization is responded to by images saturated with information, to the point of blurring the reading of the image.
The photographs in the series 1606–1907 explore three centuries of the floral still-life tradition in Western art and its stylistic progression over time, from its early beginnings in the Netherlands and Flanders up to the Modernist period, until 1907, when colour photography was born through the invention of the autochrome. The genre of still life is a family of images historically rooted in illusionism, trompe l’œil, and themes of temporality. It is my intention to complicate and invert this relationship through the use of photography’s descriptive abilities and [its] reliance on reality and time. I make copies, reproductions from reproductions of iconic floral works [by artists] from Brueghel to [Odilon] Redon. The process begins in research, growing, and collection of specific flowers, props, insects, etc., for the camera’s lens, followed by arranging, set construction, lighting, and composing for the fraction of a second the film is exposed. The goal is a mimetic image, one that evokes the memorial and the multi-temporal layers of its creation.
The Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is squeezed between Poland and Lithuania. Until 1945 it belonged to Germany as East Prussia, and then it became a Russian military territory with severely restricted access until the end of the USSR. Every day, small unofficial roadside markets pop up, where old women offer the modest harvest from their gardens or the nearby forest for sale to supplement their pension. The goods range from three apples, a bunch of currants, and two garlic bulbs to perhaps two jars of homemade strawberry jam and a beautiful flower bouquet from their windowsill. The radiance of the goods and the way they are presented reminded me of the classical subjects in the baroque market still life. Over the cycle of a year, I documented them in a still-life study. With Tempora Morte, I explore how the genre of still life can be positioned in contemporary documentary photography.
Richard de Tscharner
I was at a family party at the castle of Amsoldingen [in the canton of Bern, Switzerland]. I had taken my camera with me, to capture some images of my cousins. Imagine my surprise when I realized that, instead, I had only taken photographs of the sublime nature that was literally invading the veranda, where the aperitif was served. It was then that I saw an opening in the foliage that looked out into the park, like a window with the transparent greenery as a frame.
There are moments when everyday objects suddenly lose their veil of familiarity and become abstract. The usual meaning that you give these objects is altered, and for a split second you are able to see them in a different light. This moment in time I use as a starting point for my images. [During] these past years I have also been captured by the magnificence of flowers and the world of growing and creating gardens. Flowers and plants are the new material I work with in order to create an image that will convey my fascination with the beauty of the ordinary.
Flowers are a celebration of love and beauty. I want my flowers to be beautiful, feminine, and otherworldly. I like to capture roses in full bloom that are opening themselves to the sun. Petals lie in full light, with soft, silky, and soothing colours. I concentrate on representing organic forms and smooth textures. Light is essential while creating this body of work: the balance in the light and shade; the transition between light and dark. I want to create a tone that is almost surreal and illuminated by a strong yet delicate touch of light. Inspired by the use of light in Renaissance paintings, I hope to bring pleasure to my viewers.
I work with objects—natural, found, or made. My key tool is a flatbed scanner that makes the modern equivalent of a photogram. In Blossfeldt’s Apprentice the images are of objects hand-made with twist ties. They attempt to re-create plant structures that are shown in iconic photographs by the German artist Karl Blossfeldt. Blossfeldt wanted to encourage his students to pay attention. He made a camera that allowed magnification of up to 30x, and took hundreds of photos of plant forms. He was demonstrating that the best design had already been anticipated in nature. I pored over his images and became a latter-day student – twisting, tying, and bending the material to my will. My imperfect specimens taunted me with their limitations. But embracing the flaws became the point of the work, and showing the joins and loose threads reveals the tension between perfection and imperfection.
This untitled photo is from the series Isolation (Self), photographed while in quarantine alone during the COVID-19 pandemic. The series (consisting primarily of self-portraits and a number of still-life and landscape photos tracking the growth, bloom, wilt, and decay of the garden behind my apartment) is an exploration of myself during this period of isolation; of anxiety and loneliness; of disconnection and a longing for intimacy; of depression, numbness, grief, and nightmares. And ultimately of my own discomfort with myself.
The series Flora olbiensis was commissioned by the Centre d’art Villa Noailles in Hyères, in the south of France. I visited the area regularly between 2004 and 2007, and in the course of the seasons, I photographed some 100 wild flowers. Through their expressive poses, the enlargement of sometimes tiny details, and the coloured backgrounds that decontextualize them, the flowers appear almost like people, while by their variations they evoke a range of diverse emotions. Starting off from a documentary position, the work leads the spectator towards a more dreamlike contemplation: each of these portraits of a flower is, like every encounter, a mirror. Each is an invitation to reflect on the relation between ourselves and the other.
I came to representing flowers in my work through my interest in established art-historical tropes such as the still life. They are present in so many passages of our lives, from celebration to grief to our daily existence in between. They present an endless variation in form and colour, which allows me room to work.
In the series Porter sa peau [Wearing One’s Skin], I extract scenes from my memory in which my life is seen through distorting mirrors. The symbolism of the objects I stage is partly drawn from seventeenth-century art, or sometimes simply viewed through my own prism. Each scene explodes into several new compositions that bolster the main narrative. As murky and misty as memory, these images’ asperities compel us to slow down in order to take them in more fully, at the risk of getting scratched by their hidden rough patches. Whether it is the way I envision my origins as an Italian born in Switzerland or [as] a father, or a tribute to my mother, this new photographic work is about me, leaning down to better see my own reflection.
Anna Halm Schudel
For more than twenty-five years, I have been photographing flowers. Their beauty saves me from my sadness. Tulips are my favourite flowers; they remind me of ballet dancers, they move gracefully as they grow older. The capturing of lively colours is essential in my work, but I also feel the desire to create fading shades.
Pamela Ellis Hawkes
Over the years I have been exploring and questioning the perceived reality inherent in a photograph and its relationship to the elusive and ethereal nature of imagination and memory. In a statement written twenty years ago, I said, ‘Because it is necessary to possess physical reality, photographers, as opposed to artists in other mediums, can’t conjure up images from memory or imagination.’ At that time I explored the use of ‘surrogate objects’ as an alternative to ‘conjuring.’ But, as the medium has quickly evolved since then, it has presented ever more possibilities for imagination as an alternative to physical reality. For instance, the degrading effects that can occur with subsequent generations of digital images are imposed on historic pieces that have been carefully restored and preserved for centuries. The results can be strange, fragmented, and ephemeral. These concepts have fascinated and confounded me since making my first photographs, and my work is inspired by and explores the limits of these ideas.
My work features my daughter Flavia. I am influenced by my Dutch heritage and together we create a specific atmosphere to express my feelings, childhood, and imagination. My photography is like a mysterious curator of my life, of what I see in my head and would like to express of my past but through the eyes of an adult. My work has a painterly feel to it and is staged in locations I know well and that inspire me. The child is often alone and the centrepiece of the picture. All the details are very important in my pictures, and I try to capture the pursuit of a certain flawless perfection and beauty I was brought up with. I work alone, without a stylist or set designer, and most of the time in natural light.
For years I have disregarded any photograph of flowers as cheesy and simply out of bounds. I would have thrown flowers into the same bag as sunsets, kittens, or nudes as difficult subjects to approach photographically. Difficult, I suppose, because of their popularity and overexposure. Pictures like these become mainstream, seen everywhere, easy prey, nostalgic, sweet, sentimental, and as a result, it’s hard to see the work as original. However, looking through my work, as I did with this publication in mind, I find flowers popping up all over the place. They are usually supporting or in contrast to what is central in my frame, like best supporting actors. In a closed-down, boarded-up film studio in Romania, I found this lonely bunch of dried flowers among what felt like an isolated dry desert of dust and blackness. I titled the series of photographs Isolation.
Most of my work deals with the relationship between photography and painting. Flowers remind me, in a good way, of the impermanence of life, and in Still life (Flower 1) I have found a way to capture them in my work. In this image I made a traditional flower still life in ambient light. Then I used digital painting tools to obscure and distort the image. To me the question is what do we see first, the object or the surface?
For the past twenty years, I have explored the creative potential of microscopy to reveal the spectacular array of diverse forms and structures of highly magnified plant specimens. Using scanning electron microscopy, black-and-white images of pollen, seeds, and fruits are chromatically re-mastered, using multiple layers of colours to enhance their structures and reveal elaborate and fragile morphological traits with astounding clarity. Colour choices begin with referencing the original plant or specimen and are additionally informed by artistic sensibility. In essence the results are complex plant portraits underpinned with scientific knowledge, and consequently have an aesthetic value bridging both scientific and artistic cultures. Scabiosa crenata is the dried floret from the flower head that contains the seed; the whole thing acts as a parachute when it detaches from the flower head. Its graceful form suggests an exquisite balletic costume.
I found this tree in a park surrounded by many others. I was immediately struck by the sense of peace and balance that it conveyed. It evoked the feelings I had in China during my numerous wonderful trips there. It is a country I am learning to appreciate and admire for the ability of its art and Eastern sense of aesthetics to convey emotion and states of mind. For me, this has become a constant source of inspiration in combination with the magic and mystery that trees transmit. In my studio, I had to work on the image for long hours and days until I was fully satisfied that the still image could faithfully represent the emotion I felt when I first saw this tree. In the process I had to silence all rational actions and let my eyes and hands be guided solely by my emotions. The final photograph would have to convey the sense of peace, calm, and dream that the tree evoked in me. My purpose will thus be fulfilled.
I made photograms from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s—constructing imagined plant specimens, gardens, and landscapes. At the same time, I was working with other low-tech photographic processes and with techniques that allowed my hand to show: light drawing, handmade pinhole cameras, and hand-colouring. During that time before sophisticated computer imagery, I was striving to connect the mechanical rendering of photography with painting and drawing. I was working to expand the way photographs were thought about then, while also mining for deeper expression. Photograms are a simple photographic process, but my workflow was mostly complex and layered, often culminating in the hand-application of colour. I had many successes but also frustrations; there were times when the medium was not flexible enough to allow me to go where I wanted, evolve the image, or create the variations I wanted. Twenty-five years later, learning digital photography, I realized those limitations were gone, and I couldn’t resist going back, reworking, and reimagining some photograms—resulting in pictures with two dates. I also did this with pinhole pictures and a few light drawings. Even now I’m occasionally drawn back to evolve an old analogue image as I move forward digitally with new work.
Silver sparks dull on the wrinkly belly of an overripe apricot’s skin moulting into the mottled edge of the tablecloth: my still-life photographs are reminiscent of seventeenth-century Dutch/Flemish painting. My photographs wrestle with the behemoth that is photography, that is, its proliferation as well as what and how it ‘means.’ If pictures ‘mean’ something, as do words, thinking of Gertrude Stein’s ‘a rose is a rose is a rose,’ [can we also say] a photograph is a photograph is a photograph? A two-dimensional surface adorned with colour, line, and texture, or is it what it pictures? Is the rose in my photograph a rose, or a photograph of a rose, or, to be more precise, a photograph of a photograph of a rose? All photographs of flowers are photographs first; ‘of ’ flowers, not necessarily second, but [in] what order and to what effect is a quandary. Indeed, every photograph is both more and less than what it is ‘of.’ Pictures attest to a blush of pink just as they arrest this blush from fading. Theirs is an invitation to stop and smell flowers that cannot relinquish their scent. Using bits and pieces of others’ pictures—Christie’s catalogue, Martha Stewart Living, New York Times sports pages—as the building material in my compositions of table scenes, I thwart the monocular authority of the single lens through ambivalent spatial cues and conflicting perspectives and temporalities. My photographs afford another kind of pleasure, one that embraces the astonishment of the proposition itself.
Transience, the passing of time, and decay are central issues of my work. I do not feel fear or disgust but witness a lost, enraptured universe of withered and faded things: a beautifully wilted flower, the tenderness of a wrinkled petal, a hint of daylight on an almost forgotten world. Illuminated by natural daylight only, the flowers emerge from the shadows, unique and self-sufficient. The chiaroscuro still lifes reference the original meaning of the word ‘portrait,’ which descends from the Latin word portrahere, translating as ‘to bring something to light.’ The images hint at the paradox of photography by making us aware of the inescapable passage of time, while photography as a technical medium was intended to preserve life.
2D Flattens 3
what’s more than perfection? what’s left to remove?
what tool to tame beauty or coax a new rule?
the seed, a beginning, its pause a dull moan,
such glory itself is the story sewn full.
the miracle, bigger than brain can allow,
leaves little to add to the gift of its loan.
petals arranged…so familiar, so slow
any capture a loss, with less to be told.
the game of the lens lands a digital hand.
the couple then dances, the tune driven
repeating the facts is a waste of the act.
what’s left is a start that begins a fresh bed.
searing all senses; jumping red outside line;
squeezing space into flat; twisting gesture
the history of glory puts language on hold
as order reverses, surreal leads it all.
2D flattens 3
All my work is characterized by a careful study of colour and forms that paint my compositions. I don’t stick to the expected, and it’s that element of unpredictability that excites me to create my visions. This project, Flowers, was born from a dream. I imagined walking through an empty city in which new natural forms spontaneously arise. Nature invades the rational forms of architecture trying to imitate it. The flowers change and create parallel worlds because they are able to survive everything that hinders them.
I chose to make pictures of flowers in dedication to my wife, Lisa, because they are lovely things, often exchanged between lovers. They are also part of the long tradition of still life in art. Precisely because flowers are such well-known and conventional subjects, I felt a strong desire to describe them in new, inventive ways—I wanted to make them my own, so to speak. I love the way Jan Brueghel [the Elder], [Édouard] Manet, [Georgia] O’Keeffe, Irving Penn, and Joan Mitchell reworked common flowers to show unexpected versions of them. The nominal subject of my photographs may be flowers, but to me they are more deeply about perspective, love, jealousy, hate, geometry, sex, agility, time, and death.
The Atomic Flower is part of my ongoing series AEON, which investigates the current issues of storing radioactive waste over a long period of time. Beside technical measures to ensure secure geological repositories, the project also questions how future generations in hundreds of thousands of years to come can be warned of the lethal threat of nuclear waste. On several occasions, semioticians and energy authorities have dealt with the central question of preserving data, knowledge, and memories over generations—with partly pragmatic, partly fanciful solutions. In the early 1980s, influenced by the first successful genetic modification of crops, the Polish philosopher and science-fiction author Stanisław Lem proposed breeding an ‘atomic flower’ that would bloom only if radioactivity were to escape from a repository.
I use bright, radiant colours because they visually capture the emotion I sometimes feel when I see the world and its beauty. These moments are epiphanies. By epiphany I mean evidence of a manifestation from beyond, evidence of the miracle of creation. Abstraction is one of the ways of showing the border between the visible and the invisible, the complexity of things and of the living. This is where the doors of perception are, the border between reality and illusion. All this feeds my work. I have listed all the mistakes that a good photographer should not make, and I have tried to include them in my practice. These taboos have contributed to the development of my photographic writing.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of flowers. I spent my years as a toddler in Kenya, where my father worked as a doctor in a local hospital. I vividly remember the gorgeous smell of the frangipani tree, which releases its scent in the evening when the sun has gone down. I remember the bright orange-red of the flamboyant tree in our garden, where the ‘banana birds’ used to nest. And the lovely lilac flowers paving the road when it was jacaranda season. Back in Holland, aged six, I found most of the Dutch flowers rather underwhelming in their scents, compared with the African flowers. But then again, the sight of multicoloured striped tulip fields till the horizon meets the sky isn’t bad either.
The Plastic Ocean series combines sculpture and photography to examine our changing relationship with plastics and their overwhelming presence within society today. The images provide a clash between worlds, offering minimal and aesthetically pleasing compositions that, on closer inspection, instill a sense of ecological grief, asking questions about consumption, idolatry, and what we value in our lives today. The effect is quirky, playful, and pop: paradoxically, this debris does not disgust us. Their dainty look seems to gloss over the urgency of plastic pollution on our beaches, but this first impression soon fades. The use of flowers in Vanda contributes to providing a kind of vanitas for the twenty-first century. Traditional markers of mortality, ephemerality, and wealth have been traded out for bottles, baskets, and bowls: single-use items that are used and discarded, existing now as empty, destructive vessels. Flowers have [long] been symbols of the shortness of our existence and the fleeting nature of life’s futility [and] of earthly possessions.
In my artistic practice as a photographer, I have focused on the Occidental world’s way of studying, exploring, and exploiting the natural world and its resources. A part of my practice has been the study of human attempts at categorizing and classifying nature. I was captivated by the famous Swedish botanist [Carolus] Linnaeus’s obsession to create a [naming] system for all living organisms in the world. My photographs of flowers were published in the book A Passion for Systems: Linnaeus and the Dream of Order in Nature (2007), where I photographed flowers and their reproductive parts according to Linnaeus’s ‘sexual system,’ published in Systema Naturae in 1735. I have also tried to capture the fascinating beauty and function of the carnivorous plants in the series Carnivores (2010). This project was published in National Geographic magazine.
My idea was to turn Jeff Koons into an art piece by painting his face white to give him the appearance of a sculpture. The suit jacket hints at his financial success, and the flowers reference elements from his work.
jane says is a photographic garden of flowers and herbs arranged and offset against a brightly coloured background. The featured plants—rue, peony, pennyroyal, poroporo among them—are drawn from millennia of human history in which they have been used medicinally in association with women’s reproductive health as emmenagogues (substances that bring on menstruation), abortifacients (substances that induce abortion), or contraceptives, of varying strengths and viabilities. Along with my research into the histories of botanical medicine, colonial practices of abortion, and human relationships with these plants, this series of large-scale hyper-detailed images references the Japanese tradition of ikebana, which I learned, and its visual and conceptual qualities of structure and regulation. The series is accompanied by printed matter and performance-based components. By making these works, including constructing the arrangements myself and growing some of the more difficult-to-source plants, I intended to focus a viewer in on the profound knowledge nature holds. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing politicization of women’s health, the #metoo movement, the ever-growing impact of the climate emergency, and COVID-19, these artworks argue that our mismanagement of nature has engendered an incremental loss of knowledge and understanding that we cannot easily build back, and that continues to pose a danger to human existence. Warning: Plants are powerful and have fascinating histories, part of which the artist is exploring here. But be wary of any engagement with these plants, many of them are toxic, poisonous, and deadly. The images in this series are artworks and do not constitute medical advice.
I began my experiment with digital techniques of botanical illustration in 2004. In time-honoured fashion I aim to convey a scientific visual description of the plant concerned, but photography now allows me to do this with a degree of realism that is difficult to achieve by painting. To others a white background is clinical, but to me it feels enabling. It allows me to give even the lowliest of plants their moment in the limelight. I want to portray them alive and kicking, neither laid out like corpses nor flattened like pressed herbarium specimens. The only hidden depths are those further features or micro-characters that can be revealed on magnification, especially by on-screen viewing, and which the photographic medium makes possible. If respect for the environment is to be felt, an understanding of plants is necessary. It is my hope that visually accessible information in attractive images can draw in those who have been blind to plants, to encourage them to go into and beyond the image. I want to share my love [of] and interest in plants and encourage everyone, especially the young, to take a closer look.
This image was taken as part of a long-term photographic research [project] entitled Ricochet. A device called Gigapan, developed by NASA for high-resolution panoramic images of the Martian surface, was used to take several hundred individual images, which were then combined into a single image by computer. This recording technique is very precise under studio conditions and leads to extremely high-resolution results. In the wild, however, all meteorological conditions such as light changes, rain, or wind write themselves into the recording and lead to unpredictable ‘errors’ in the final image. Additionally, using a telephoto lens with an open aperture creates a paradoxical effect in that the extreme reduction in depth of field manifests itself in an inherently wide-angle image. All these effects are more palpable than clearly visible in the shot of a fading glycine [wisteria] overgrowing an abandoned house in the immediate neighbourhood of my studio.
The city and nature are my masters, they energize me. While I live as well in Berlin, I also find myself at home in the countryside. Nature follows an aesthetic perfectionism, but the city is dense, full of snapshots and volatility. I see myself as a collector, a flâneur. Everything seems connected to me. My works are impressions that fall into a collage, showing a web of incidents.
Ron van Dongen
My interest in nature, and specifically gardening, started at a very young age, before I ever touched a camera. Years later, while attending art school, photographing flora began as a mere exercise. It allowed me to learn the ins and outs of working with a large-format camera, while my subject matter waited patiently in the studio. Little did I know that I was going to be able to make a living from gardening in the most unconventional way: first growing the plants and subsequently documenting the different and unique specimens. But I suspect that when all photographic activities have passed, I will still be tending my plants with love and care, whether it is in a lush garden somewhere in the countryside or in a few pots on a city balcony.
Ruud van Empel
The colours in nature are overwhelming. Whenever I make images of nature, I love to portray those intense colours. But there are also very dark colours; a very dark-black nature also exists—what would it mean? I made a small series of works in 2018-19 about the colour black in nature, and I photographed black plants and flowers everywhere I came across them until I had a good stock to work with. I then worked in my usual technique, cutting out elements from photos and combining them with other elements to create a whole new image. I use photography to create a fictional image; I link realism and dream: the inconvenience of the almost tangible reality versus the illusion.
For the past forty years, I have photographed cities; nature has never interested me as a subject for photography. I suffered under the delusion that a rectangular image wrenched out of the landscape could only be arbitrary with no logical structure, or just a pictorial cliché, reminiscent of those on calendars and postcards. At a certain point, I felt obliged to take up the challenge, to face the beast of nature. I decided to limit myself to working with flowers. I adopted the same compositional strategy I use when photographing in places such as Times Square [Manhattan]. When looking through the viewfinder, I ignore the literal subject matter and compose the picture on the basis of purely abstract elements of form and colour. Forgetting the countless metaphorical significances usually associated with flowers, I compose my images as if on a blank canvas or flat surface. This often enables me to conjure up relationships between styles and techniques evocative of abstract painting.
In Analytical Behavior, an anthropomorphic magnifying device examines a Japanese anemone flower, while restraining a pinned Luna moth, engaged in a post-mortem flight. Meanwhile live snails investigate the drama. As actors on a stage, they are engaged in a mute dialogue. The painted backdrop and studio lighting are key to animating and unifying the disparate elements. Surprisingly, when the strobe lighting flashed, the snails retreated into their shells, and only with time would they retake their positions on the stage. The performance was concluded with one click of the view camera’s shutter, exposing film, without digital manipulation.
All Purpose Flower was conceived and created during the Malaysian Movement Control Order (MCO) due to COVID-19 in May 2020. It began as a coping mechanism while in quarantine, creating flowers using items found in my home, from cut-out flowers from vintage kimono fabric to coconut-milk cartons to flowers made from raffia. Once the florists were back in business in Malaysia, I had some fresh blooms delivered for my birthday, and created arrangements as a form of self-portrait during quarantine, displaying household items that became part of the new norm such as gloves and masks, and items found in the pantry. On MCO Day 59, I wrote: ‘As the peonies’ colour transformed from vibrant pink to this dusty pastel shade, they also grew bolder and more beautiful each day. Though time seems to be standing still these days, I can feel something is changing within, just like the peonies, [and] I hope that I too am blooming.’
With a lot of my projects, there’s a preservationist impulse at work. In many ways, I think of the photographs as a kind of record-keeping in a world that’s rapidly being depleted of its most exquisite subjects. By using photography as a recording device to create two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional living things, the images become physical documents of moments that have passed. I want to understand how things work, to lay them out in some kind of order, to consider them in a way I can understand. I have a desire to create clarity out of confusion, and investigating the botanical world appeals to this impulse. It’s fascinating that the most astonishingly beautiful qualities of flowers are purely survival mechanisms. I love that every flower is a dependent half of an ecosystem, and structurally, they evoke their insect counterparts. Very early on in the making of this project, I had the opportunity to photograph the extremely rare Darwin’s star orchid [Angraecum sesquipedale], which was instrumental in [Charles] Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution. He postulated that because of the 11-in [28-cm] spur extending from its blossom, there had to be an insect with some kind of appendage long enough to pollinate it. No one believed him, but forty years later entomologists discovered a moth with a furled tongue that was four times longer than its body.