joSon and His Modern Florilegium, by Peter Bernhardt
Foreword text from joSon's forthcoming book, joSon: Intimate Portraits of Nature, published by Graphis , June 2013
Throughout history, some civilizations felt compelled to preserve their garden flowers through art. Artifacts found in Crete, China and Egypt depict stylized images of flowers in paint, clay, enamel, or gold. Illustrations of medicinal plants survive in books from the Roman Empire and woodcuts in these herbals became more realistic through the Renaissance. Early in the 1700s, improved tools for collecting and examining flowers at close range gave us an age of still-lifes from the Netherlands and decades of magnificent folios in books we now call florilegia. During the 18th and 19th centuries horticulture became art, and art served science.
What you are holding in your hands continues the great tradition in florilegia. It may seem ironic, but the technology of fiber optics, macro lenses and the digitized camera gives us much the same detail and depth of focus that drawing and coloring by hand gave us until well into the 20th century. Nothing will ever replace the meticulous, hand-painted studio flower, but joSon's techniques give us in electrons much of the same beauty and detail accomplished in brushstrokes. He takes the same delight in depicting the long, sigmoid or coiled stems that attach the flowers to the parent plant as the Victorian illustrators did. His wonder and respect for the sheer architecture of flowers on stems is a visual throwback to the 1700's, when Linnaeus classified the natural architecture of flowering branches. Our photographer seems fascinated by two self-repeating, flowering stems in nature. First, joSon likes the flowering stem Linnaeus, called the head or involucrum. Here, small flowers (florets) mass together on a flat-headed stage develop in an outgoing spiral in a distinctive, Fibonacci pattern. We see this in his photos of the dahlias-daisy family (Asteraceae). Secondly, he loves those stems that terminate in a wheel of umbrella-like spokes ending in flowers. By altering light and perspective, these umbels remind us of the self-repeating patterns found in knot gardens and traditional French lace. Instead of someone weaving flowers into garlands joSon shows that these stems are garlands.
Collectors may find themselves comparing joSon's work to that of a more recent master of domestic flower portraits, Robert Mapplethorpe. There are a few similarities. Both enjoy the diversity available in a commercial, American, greenhouse. Both might also agree that a studio photo of a domesticated flower says far more about the personal and private choices of the photographer than it does about how humans alter plant form via selective breeding.
From there, their art diverges. Because joSon embraces color, you can't say that his flowers have the black edge Mapplethorpe believed he gave his blooms. Tropical plants preferred by Mapplethorpe descend from species that evolved thick, protective, waxy cuticles retarding evaporation and damage by ultra-violet light under an equatorial sun. Mapplethorpe delighted in showing how light bounced off these cuticles leading to some startling images. joSon's photos, meanwhile, do not startle as much as they redefine. His use of light shows how Nature, and our ongoing manipulations, induce repeatable patterns. Think of any flowering branch or flower as a module in which symmetry is based on a program of repetition. For plants, repetition is the rule, not the exception. That is why joSon's remarkable photos of florets in a dahlia head or the fringed tips of tulip petlas may remind you of the scaled hide of a reptile or the fluted margins of some sea creature's shell.
The end result may seem, to some, unnatural. I showed these photos to a friend recently and she noted, they're too perfect. That's a good thing. Domesticated flowers are not about life in the wild. They're about choices we make after preceding generations make choices. joSon makes a choice to use modern techniques to return to an earlier age. He wants depth and detail with his bouquet.
Peter Bernhardt is a professor of biology at St. Louis University and a research associate at both the Missouri Botanical Garden of St. Louis and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Natural Affairs: A Botanist Looks at the Attachments between Plants, An Orchid Paradise, Gods and Goddesses in the Garden, and People and The Rose's Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers
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