Assignment 4 – further reading; stems, weeds and studies

In the tutor’s  feedback for assignment 4, I was pointed in the direction of Lee Friedlander’s Stems and also to a wider list of other photographers’ work dealing with the flowers and the way you can light them, in a variety of ways. I was aware of some them already, others were completely new to me.

Two modern Americans, with contrasting approaches to flower pictures:

Friedlander’s Stems: I’ve known about Friedlander for a while now and have the catalogue from the 2008 MOMA retrospective. While the catalogue contains a number of the Stems pictures, I hadn’t consciously spent time looking at them, paying more attention to the exterior shots earlier on in the book (and Friedlanders chronology). However the similarities between 2 and 5 in my set and the pictures here, suggest that – at some level at least – they had penetrated my consciousness.

They don’t deal with the flower heads, but instead play with the transparency of glass vases, the distortion created by water and the structure and shape of a bunch of stems and leaves. They take something commonly regarded as an aesthetic cliche (flowers) and then ignore the obvious to find further ideas of beauty in the bits that most people pass over. This oblique view of the subject is further emphasised by being in black and white, removing colour from the equation as well. It’s not for nothing that the Russian for “flowers” is the same as the word for “colours” and its absence turns the subject into something else entirely.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flowers Portfolio (1978 – 1989): In contrast these seem very classical in their concentration on individual named types of bloom, either in black and white or colour. They are crisp enough to be  scientific illustrations, and  – unlike Friedlander’s pictures – are titled according to the flower name. I really like the contrast between the flatness of the backgrounds and the heightened form of the foregrounded flower heads. Orchids, 1989 (one of the coloured pictures) could almost be a watercolour; Poppy, 1988 captures beautifully the hairy texture of the flowers’ stems, the red of the petals again seems exact. Lovely!

3 photographers producing images that could be described as typographic:

Charles Jones (c. 1900 and rediscovered in 1981): Peas, Carrots, Sprouts, Roses, Marrows, more Roses, more Peas, Strawberries; all set out like illustrations in a seed catalogue. All slightly rougher and less perfect than the fruit and veg you get in a supermarket. The text with the pictures linked above describes them as “portraits” and, like with portraits, there are things that give them away as products of a particular time; for example, the variations of grey that depict the red of the strawberries or the green of the pea pods seem slightly “off” in a way that presumably comes from the non-panchromatic way the chemistry of Jones’ plates reproduced colours as greys.

Karl Blossfeld’s Urformen der Kunst (1928): ‘Urformen’ translates from German as ‘Archetypes’ and these pictures seem very much an attempt to set down the underlying structure of the plants photographed by Blossfeld in a way that relates them directly to elements of design used by humans for either aesthetic or engineering purposes. There is no drama in the uncontrasty lighting here; no strong shadows and no dazzling highlights.

My favourite of the three linked above is Laserpitium Siler, (Laserwort, Part of a Fruit Umbel) with the starry umbels illuminated with their supports darker and in soft focus behind, reminding me of the yellow stars painted on the mid blue ceilings of the tombs in the valley of the kings.

Garry Fabian Miller: I looked at his pictures of Honesty Seed Pods and Bramble Crosses. If I hadn’t read the text, I wouldn’t have picked up on the religious subtext that surrounds these images (although ‘Crosses’ in the title of pictures made at Easter, should have alerted me, I think) leaving me to think about the way they work with repetition of form and variations of colour within depictions of the same thing. Unlike the pictures by Jones and Blossfeld, I don’t see anything that places them in time but – given that they were all made within the last 10 years – the time-specific signifiers probably haven’t started to become obvious yet…

All three sets of pictures looked at here take the plants and flowers pictured out of any sort of historical context, presenting them instead as exemplars of their type, showing details of structure in a scientific, detached way. It is possible to date the pictures however and to place them within the development of photography from technical characteristics of the prints such as the way colours are reproduced (or converted to greys); Jones’ pictures of vegetables or flowers could probably be placed within the context of the cultivation of different types by market gardeners too – they’re not as much a give away of a subjects location within time as clothes on photographs of people would be, but to my relatively ignorant eye, his carrots and marrow don’t look like their 21st century equivalent…

3 photographers whose pictures of flowers seem more concerned with the conditions where the flowers grow than with the flowers per se:

Chris Shaw – Weeds of Wallasey (2007-2012): Purposefully rough pictures printed in a messy high contrast style (“creating an aesthetic of bad printing” is the way Shaw puts it  in the video made by Tate Britain to tie in with a show that paired him with Daido Morayama). Centred, foreground objects are overlit by explosions of flash; the edge beyond  the exposed area of the film is left in; there are stains and imperfections everywhere; and there are also hand-written humorous titles (I particularly like “The Haywain” where you struggle to link the view of a bus stop with one pane of glass shattered into a drift of ice, in front of a box bridge receding into a fog that is either real or a flaw in the exposure of the print with the picture by Constable, but somehow still end up accepting them both as encapsulations of a certain type of ‘England’). Shaw has written that “Weeds are us” which I take to mean that we are the things that spring up between the cracks in the post-industrial world. As someone with two grandfathers who made a living from ships and the Mersey and who grew up in a house called Bidston, I feel a connection with this series, even if my father managed to think his way out of that particular ghetto.

I’d already linked his pictures with Morayama, before I saw the Tate video by the way; I’m not sure why I feel the need to type that, but for some reason (and I suspect my smartarse motives here) I do…

David Axelbank’s  Still Life:  harsh, high contrast single flash, outdoors at night, giving extremely vivid, coloured flowers against an inky black background. They’re not unlike Terry Richardson’s fashion stuff in their harshness, or possibly even surveillance pictures; I found myself thinking of the Japanese bloke who took pictures of people having sex in parks in Tokyo or Weegee taking photographs of couples on the beach at Coney Island or snogging in the pictures. Some of them (the ones of round puffy blue flowers, say) could be taken deep underwater or of tiny things viewed through a microscope; they are photos taken somewhere we don’t belong (night) and of things that we don’t normally see.

Julian Anderson, Cinder Path (2009): 6 centrally placed flowers lit within a square frame with a sense of the much darker surroundings not enclosed within the depth of field. Another set that dares to be ugly, eschewing conventional ideas of “prettiness”.

Where the typography pictures aspire to some sort of perfect reproduction of their subject, these images all revel in their imperfections; smudges greyness, text from outside the boundaries of the frame. The making of the pictures and the photographer making them is as important here as the subjects; the flowers provide a pretext for photography, standing in for something larger, odder, more significant perhaps.

If the typographies have more in common with the Mapplethorpe pictures, these all share something with the tensions between order and chaos between the conventional and the individual in Friedlanders’ Stems. It’s also, I think significant that the type of plant is not of significance here; rather the place or the time when they were taken seems to be of greater significance. We have moved from depiction to an interpretable meaning here…

So, how do I relate these to the pictures I made for assignment 4? Some relate directly – Stems match up with Fig, 2 and Fig. 5; I can see a link between Axelrod’s flowers at night and the last of my pictures where everything is made strange by the mixed light from dawn outside and the interior tungsten filtered flash; the second texture picture (Fig. 6) fits in with both the typographies and with Mapplethorpe’s pictures. All of mine could be pushed further I think, but that wasn’t what I was asked to do; I was trying to play with lighting.

References (all accessed 06-vi-15):

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One thought on “Assignment 4 – further reading; stems, weeds and studies

  1. Pingback: Assignment # 4 – Tutor’s Comments | Simon Chirgwin's Learning (B)Log

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