beyond birthday cards

by julie posted December 31, 2007

I always lamented the idea of narrowing yourself down to a single subject. I felt strongly that photography didn’t necessarily have to be about the subject – that you could make pictures with whatever is in front of you at any given time, and the result would depend on your artistic ability.

But (of course there’s a ‘but’)…

The more I think about it, the more I step back and look at my habits, inclination, and behaviour, it has become painfully obvious that I react to plants, flowers, and trees far more than any other subject. Were you to ask me to provide a portfolio of my best work, I doubt any other subjects would appear in it but those. It seems that all along, subconsciously I’ve been developing a relationship with these things that I’ve been exploring with the camera and that’s what gives me the most satisfaction out of a day’s shooting.

But (ah yes, here’s another one)…

Is there something more than the superficial to be derived from photographs of plants and flowers? Not in a wild and exciting discovering new species or even hunting down rare specimens of exotic orchids kind of way – but in my accessible, rather pedestrian, botanic gardens or local park on a Sunday afternoon kind of way? I know that from the process of making these images I have developed an understanding of my subject. I know that intellectually I could learn far, far more by reading up on botany, or even a gardening book, but that’s an intellectual sort of understanding. I get a sense of wonder and delight from noticing the details of how a vine winds itself around a neighbouring stalk, or how petals burst from a bud. But is that what’s to be taken from the resulting photographs? Is there a reason why I would hold up the results of my discoveries and have them mean something more to anyone else, than a cursory glance and an “Ooh, pretty” response?

I’m struggling to think of any highly regarded images of plants and flowers that aren’t:

a) in a studio, artistically and artificially lit, shot in high contrast black & white or arranged like a van gogh still life, or

b) taken in such a way that focuses on the process rather than the subject – cyanotype or other alternative process, polaroid/holga, flatbed scan

Is there anything beyond the fine art floral, or are they all seen as birthday card images? Is anyone doing something really interesting with nature, or is it relegated to the realms of Anne Geddes cheesiness? Have we seen all the possibilities? Have urban decay and deadpan portraits banished it from the art radar? I really hope that there’s loads going on and I just haven’t seen it. I’d love to know where to start looking.

3 Responses to beyond birthday cards

  1. You’re not the only one having musings about that sort of thing Julie.

    This is an interesting read.

    I have to admit that I love to make pretty images, images that make me feel good because I have mastered a technique or got what I set out to get.

    Many people have made good livings from being “Birthday card” photographers, it’s just a matter of personal taste and passion for a subject.

    I’m yet to find one thing I could spend the rest of my life photographing and that alone. Maybe I never will.

  2. I can think of three of your images straightaway without looking at your flickr that contain non-plants: goldfish, shoes/legs and the one I thought was taken from inside a grave. It’s very subjective, one’s own subject matter – sometimes I feel resigned to only ever taking pictures of moody landscapes and my kids. I would like to expand to general (non-family) portraiture but I earn my living doing something else and time is short.

    Julie, without being too presumptious, I think you should shoot more goldfish, shoes & legs (you make a great model) and graves.

    Well, maybe not the graves.


  3. Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower images were almost more pornographic than his other work. Particularly when they are juxtaposed between his portraits, you really get a sense of how he approached the flowers.

    Andy Goldsworthy in the UK does something entirely different, out of the studio, using natural materials – might be worth a look.

    Another thought is showing how the flower fit into their eco-system – the animals and insects that depend upon them. Or in the US where the native plants and prairie has all gone.

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