When I asked my 9 year old nephew Harry what he would find interesting to read about photography, he surprised me by saying that he likes how photographs show us nature. How like me he is in that! My interest has always been in the usefulness of photographs to record and reveal the world around us. And of course my entire blog focuses on photographs as reportage: representations of life, real people and events.
Harry went on to say he likes pictures of flowers. Hooray! This would be a fun post to write. Because from the moment at the Hobart Botanical Garden when I first discovered that I could take ultra close closeups (now known as macro photography) I have been hooked on flower photography. The colours of flowers have always seemed to me to glow with a luminescence no artist could paint, no camera could capture. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying.
In my voluminous collection of digital photographs taken since 1998 flowers are amply, perhaps overly, represented. I sometimes ask myself as I take the 500th or so photo of a tulip at Floriade (the largest tulip display in the Southern Hemisphere and luckily for me an annual event in my home town of Canberra, Australia) “how many tulip photos can one person have?” and “what are these photos for?”
The answer to the first question is easy: in the era of digital cameras a photographer can have as many tulip photos as she wants. The answer to the second question is more troublesome, especially for someone who researched twentieth century art as part of investigating the impact of technology on authors and artists. I learned that in art, ‘eye candy’ is not always enough in and of itself. Art should offer some deeper meaning to the viewer. Flowers are undeniably beautiful, and photographing them captures their beauty as an image that does not fade as they do. And we all know that beauty can be its own reward. But is there a deeper meaning available in a flower photo? Does anyone really need more flower photos than would fill a large bouquet?
Perhaps it depends on your intentions in photographing them and how you use them. A photographer for a nature magazine might take several dozen photos of one field of flowers to get that magic shot. A botanist discovering a new orchid might take photos from every angle, with a scale reference included in the frame. A home gardener might take just one photo of an azalea for reference when shopping at the nearest garden centre. And these intentions can change over time.
When I first photographed flowers I was easily satisfied. They were after all the first photographs I ever took that were pretty. Unlike squirrels, beetles or birds, they didn’t move other than to sway lightly in the breeze. Even an utter novice could eventually get a well composed and focused photo. Later, I liked taking groups of flower photos chronicling my visit to a garden show or arboretum. In the late 2000s, I began photographing particular colours of flowers with the idea that I might assemble them into a flower rainbow montage.
Flowers as art is of course not a new idea. Generation after generation flowers captivate us, and artists have often attempted to capture their beauty. Van Gogh had his irises and sunflowers, Dali his roses, and O’Keeffe her poppies. A beautiful floral oil painting I was able to photograph at the Detroit Institute of Arts is Sevrin Roesen’s “Flowers.” The softness of the blowsy roses contrast with precisely drawn, almost stylized fushias, morning glories and a host of other wildflowers not normally found in a floral arrangements. Flowers have been an important part of art for centuries, be they as subject or simply a fillip added to a portrait. Perhaps photographing beautiful flowers satisfies some deep desire to create art in the only way I can, I don’t know. I only know that I find it eminently satisfying.
These days I like to find ways in which flowers interact in the world: photos of bees pollinating grevillias, or a homely hen breast-deep in bright blossoms. (One of the reasons I like Roesen’s “Flowers” relates to this idea; the sharp-eyed viewer will see nestled amongst the flowers a birds nest and a tiny ladybird beetle.) Since the advent of this blog, I’ve found that all my photographs, including those of flowers, give me a valuable resource for illustrating my ideas and concerns.
It is good to keep in mind that just like playing video games, we can spend so much time looking at our photos of flowers we fail to venture outdoors to enjoy the ones growing in our own neighbourhood. No photo can ever rival the beauty of a real flower in bloom, and of course there is no immediate prospect of photos emitting the heady scents found in the garden.
Go out and take a walk and keep alert for these gifts of nature; they can be found in almost any season. Often they can be found only a few houses down in your neighbour’s front yard. You know the one – the lady who has a passion for roses, or the man who plants gazanias in his lawn that twinkle in the sun like colourful gems in a field of green. Don’t forget to take your camera, you might find some of these blooms photo-worthy.
So the good news is that not only can we take as many digital photos of flowers as we want simply because we can and we want them, but also because we can never know how they will offer us and others value as the years go by. They may be something on which we can reflect, or that we can use in some artistic way, or that recreate the atmosphere of a day spent in the wonder of nature.
Thank you Harry for asking me to post on taking photographs of flowers. What a fun subject to explore!