You’d be so lean, that blasts of January
Would blow you through and through.
Now, my fair’st friend,
I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might
Become your time of day – A Winter’s Tale
I’m known for mountain photography but will speak now about flowers. When I do this – write, think, photograph – I like to find philosophical ideas which inspire me and are interesting for others. My background and emphasis is on mountain scenery and what it means aesthetically. Look at my catalogue and that’s what you see. But I like nature generally, birds and flowers specifically, and spring is a wonderful time for both. The trees dress in their beautiful new green but slowly, so we see the birds. Leaf cover is coming but not yet. The birds sing, which surely we all need. Read the opening of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and wonder about that dreadful possibility.
The most exquisite flower photography I know is from Robert Mapplethorpe. He cuts it back to Zen lines and elegant curves like no other. You gaze at a single lily wondering if there’s sufficient information and artistic power: and there is. It’s like the Bach cello, or a Shakespearean sonnet, with meaning concentrated in less. Perhaps that’s what art ultimately is. The world is large and artists pour it into tiny forms. Another favourite of mine is the exquisite Indian miniature.
Alongside Mapplethorpe, the person who interests me for this subject is Susan Sontag. She said you develop and proceed as a photographer on the basis of style. The possibilities of the frame, repeated across photographic years, becomes your style like the Beatles, Stones, or Stone Roses. It’s the conundrum of art where we reach for some ultimate but confined within an individual subjective. Then the phrase, I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like, because pleasures vary. My Thelonious Monk is not your Coldplay. My Turner is not your Tracy Emin.
We measure paintings, photographs, people, on the basis of what is (ultimately) the ethical notion of Keats: truth is beauty. If it isn’t, what’s the point. If neither exist, there’s an argument for saying, absurdly, neither do you. For another time perhaps; I won’t explain the idea here.
In photographic tradition you are advised to acquire a long lens, about 100mm, and make it macro. There is beautiful flower work found with that kit, but it creates a style which is not definitive and alternatives exist. It’s not superior what I’m doing – but I’m enjoying it and will explain the process.
I’m familiar with wide angle lenses after decades of mountain work so I’m less comfortable with a longer focal length. This is photographic vocabulary – not a judgement – just as I like French but only speak it basically. I enjoyed exploring a 100mm view and what its possibilities are; but enjoyed again returning to 35mm. It’s a different aesthetic. You blend with surrounding imagery rather than isolate the petals or buds. You have to see in terms of shape, light, shadow, which is subtle rather than obviously representational; painterly more than normally photographic. It’s fun for me, used to casting my eye over receding hills with a high level gaze. The teaching principle is this: see in terms of visual content not how you are feeling or whatever you experience on a mountain summit. The most sublime, or elevated vista, does not automatically translate into a good photograph. There must be thousands of Everest photographs we never see because they’re not very good. Similarly with flowers, you have to scan the view with a careful eye for composition, colour, and meaning.
At some point I may expand my flower photography with a longer lens, and I like the effect of muted colours and ethereal light. For now though, this year perhaps as spring unfolds and summer is coming, I’m exploring the effect of illumined petals with strong life-giving sun. It’s back, winter has gone, and flowers are perfect again. Technically, for these kind of pictures, you have to get close to the plants and explore the balance. If I had to summarise my feeling for this it would be the words of Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. He said “The quality that we call beauty…must always grow from the realities of life.” The art of a gallery, wonderful, is however artifice. The art here, on the ground, derives from elemental energies gentle but persistently strong.
*I will add a flower gallery to my print shop when I have a few more. Any photograph you see on my site and can’t find there – feel free to enquire on my About page.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.