Flowers Exposed: A Secret Romance by joSon
Flowers have always spoken the language of or senses. Time and again we struggle to find those images which can best express our innermost emotions, and yet it seems that the human, all-too-human languages we?ve learned to depend on fail us. A single flower can often fill that void, conveying an illumination only the heart can understand.
Yet as botanist and science writer William Burger first pointed out in his book Flowers: How They Changed the World, the connection between humans and flowers is far more fundamental--and ancient. As Burger explains: "Since they energize themselves by capturing the energy of sunlight, flowers provide a vital link in the chain of life. Even today in our complex technological world, it is the flowering plants that provide us, directly or indirectly, with nearly all the energy that sustains life." Indeed Burger concludes that "Without flowers, we humans simply wouldn't be here, whether as primates, two-legged omnivores, or grand civilizations!"
This in turn is what makes the flowers the first time travelers: Like living photographs, long after our human civilizations have crumbled, these blooms--from Tulips to Roses, Magnolias to Camellias, Orchids to Irises?will still carry within them a snapshot of our own brief time here. Their colors, forms, textures, and tender lifespan are like a lost civilization that draws me inward and compels me to document their lives. Until all that remains is one central question: how do flowers play such a crucial role in our human cultures and emotions? Which came first...the human need for flowers, or the power of the flowers themselves to evoke and enhance those same emotions through light and color, scent and symmetry?
If flowers are just innocent, unconscious plants, how then did they acquire the power to convey so much of love, joy, solace and memory into our lives? In this sense, perhaps the images in this book are more than simple portraits of flowers. Instead they become mirrors--because in each bloom we find ourselves, our inmost emotions, mirrored and melded and melted into the world inside and around us. And not simply mirrored: transformed for these same flowers also have the power to calm our emotions, or inflame them--to rekindle love, joy, forgiveness, memory, beauty, passion, and even grief.
Not surprisingly, then, the images of flowers' connection to mankind can be traced back to the very earliest human images painted or carved into the walls of prehistoric caves. Yet even today, for all of our supposed sophistication, we have very little understanding of the true inner purpose of the flower images that were etched on these walls. Similarly the ancient Egyptians were fascinated by flowers. From temple walls to textiles to vases--all surfaces were decorated with flowering images of roses, lotuses, lilies, and irises just to name a few. Indeed the Egyptians were also the first people to record written observations of flowers, although the first illustrated flower and plant books were not published until the beginning of 1st century by the Greek physician Dioscorides.
Throughout the Middle Ages, flowers and plants continued to play a crucial role in daily life, albeit as much for their practical use as for their beauty, serving primarily both a medicinal and ritual roll. By the 15th century images of flowers adorned Biblical manuscripts and took center stage at every worship service. In this way the flower was used as an important symbol that helped to convey the subtlest meaning of Biblical texts to unlettered worshipers. For example: the white rose without thorns is associated with the Virgin Mary while the red rose became a symbol of love. The columbine flower was viewed as a symbol of the Holy Ghost while the violet was associated with the infant Christ.
It's safe to say, then, that the church played a significant roll in glamorizing the flowers in ways that brought with them the full bloom of commercialization as the working class became the middle class. These newly-wealthy households were captivated by the beauty and elegance of the flowers--but this time their interest was mainly in a flower's aesthetic rather than its spiritual value, thereby opening a door to a new perspectives in the arts, as well a whole new generation of visionary artists.
By 1650 flowers were no longer used solely for decoration in portrait painting but as highly wrought still life subjects for artists and their patrons, reaching new heights of craftsmanship and bringing with them fresh challenges: to duplicate the flower and its finest details as close to perfection as humanly possible. As one art critic wrote of a floral portrait in 1669, "The finest thing I ever, I think, saw in my life [was] the drop of dew hanging in the leaves, so that I was forced again and again to put my finger to it to feel whether my eyes were deceived or not..." Yet even as artists from Flanders to France labored to render and preserve the beauty and freshness of living flowers in painting--and in the prints later perfected by the Dutch masters--there was on the far horizon a new invention that would change the fate of floral illustrations forever.
In 1838, four years after the invention of photography, an Englishman named Henry Fox Talbot--a pioneering photographer and a plant lover--excitedly announced to a friend his new invention: a creation that he called "photogenic drawing." In his letter, Talbot wrote, "I believe that this new art will be a great help to botanists... one can copy the most difficult things (flowers and plants) with a great deal of ease, I have practiced this art since the year 1834." This "new art" Talbot referred to was of course the photograph--and he was right, at least half way: yet for all their ease and perfect accuracy of line and form, photographs of flower were still less appealing than a colorful painting of a flower.
Already in France photographs of flowers were increasingly being used for commercial purposes, such as in the textile and packing industries. Yet here the images of flowers in photography were still treated as a mere study or pattern rather than appearing in the spotlight as a singular work of art. This was in part because photographs themselves were still too small (just a little bigger than a wallet size picture) to be displayed as an aesthetic artifact on a wall. Similarly their overall lack of sharpness made photographic images of the time seem pale and lifeless compared to the extraordinarily detailed arrangements portrayed in the paintings of the great Dutch masters which the French so enjoyed.
Times changed. By the second half of the 19th-century flowers in photography had reached a new peak of perfection in terms of both their quality and their commercial popularity. High quality photographic prints and greeting cards of flowers were now routinely purchased for special occasions and holidays. Thanks to the new technology that enabled mass-reproduction of photographic images for publication, paintings of flowers increasingly became a thing of the past--simply because they were so costly to reproduce and so time-consuming to create.
This then was the moment when the cameras and the flowers truly began their love affair. Around 1880, photographs of flowers first began to make their way onto the walls of European salons, not so much as art per se but as photo-illustrations. Similarly, new techniques not only improved the photographic process but also made photographs easier and less expensive to produce, attracting a new group of amateur photographers. Unleashing their ancient allure, flowers too became a favorite subject for these new generations of camera lovers: as one photography magazine wrote, "It is at this season of the year the artistic photographer cannot fail to be attracted by the large variety of flowers, photographing flowe...becoming more and more a favorite pastime among amateurs." By the time Kodak introduced the first point-and-shoot camera in 1888, photography had become a fad. This meant that photographs of flowers took on a new roll, not so much as a documentary record for botanists to study but rather for more personal and intimate purposes. Pictures of flowers became a part of each individual family's photo album. Indeed household images captured at the end of the 19th Century, drawing on both still life portraiture and flower arranging, often show a surprising touch of true sophistication and elegance.
Hence by the 1930's and 1940's photographs of flowers were no longer viewed as a form of floral study, especially in America. Major American museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum had exhibitions of floral and plant photography. "This was the only time that living plant material had ever been shown at the Museum...By implication flowers breeding was recognized as one of the arts," bragged the American photographer Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art catalogue A Life in Photography in 1936. Besides showing works by American photographers, the show also invited the French, German, and British photographers of the time to exhibit their fine art plant and flower images. Works from this new generation of photographers displayed all the accuracy of scientific illustrations, but one important difference is that these floral images were captured by the artist's eye. Rather than simply placing the flowers in front of the camera and clicking the shutter, photographers focused on form and sensuality in their images. Through the use of lines, textures, and lighting, they imbued their flowers with a sense of intelligence, life, and even mystery. As the founder of American fine art photography, Alfred Stieglitz, had first observed some two decades earlier, "...composition is even more essential than in painting, for the photographers..."
True to the ideals of this era, individual flowers or part of the leaves soon became the main subject of their photographs. In this sense, then, flowers themselves took on a new form in which emotional impact was emphasized over beauty. "Scent and colour are without a doubt the (most) beautiful thing about the plant, but the essential point, [what is] interesting and important is the structure..." explained Ernst Fuhrmann's exhibition catalogue at the Galerie Rudolph Kichen, Cologne, in 1979. Here the flower itself no longer appeared statically posed within the frame, but literally appeared to be moving within the photograph itself. Here the beauty of flowers as something traditionally associated with innocent objects emerging from the Earth seems to have become a mere secondary goal for these photographers. As the camera drew ever closer and closer to its subjects, the popular iconography of nature itself wavered dramatically between abstraction and representation, clearly influencing both the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. By the first two or three decades of the 20th Century, there was no longer any question of whether images of flowers were art or not. These photographers had not only challenged the way the world looked at images of flowers in photography, but the wider nature of art itself.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, flowers remained a popular subject in photography, much as they had first appeared a hundred years before. Yet just as in earlier eras, images of flowers in photography continued to focus as much on their symbolic meaning as opposed to their sheer beauty. In this light, the image of a dying flower appears as often today as the image of a flower in full bloom; even the parched skeletons of dried flowers are now fully exposed to the photographic paper. Recently X-ray photographs of flowers have created new ways for photographers to peer ever more deeply into the secret symmetries hidden within these petals. In this sense, the flower in postmodern photography serves more as an ideal than as a subject.
Perhaps then Henry Fox Talbot was right after all when he referred to his plant and flower photographs as new art--because to a true photographer the flowers will always perennially bring forth new secrets and symmetries and symbolic forms for us to admire and to mirror and to explore. As long as we can laugh or cry the flowers will forever be part of our lives, our dreams, our memories, and our human future.
joSon: Intimate portraits of plants published by Graphis