Passion Flowers

Originally posted on July 23, 2009 on

Flowers have long occupied an exalted place in both the fine and decorative arts. As subject matter of still life for artists as diverse as Monet and Mapplethorpe, inspiration for patterns on textiles and dinnerware, and for applied ornament on furniture, flowers have served as a primary motif and symbol.

So there’s no reason to make excuses for an obsession with flowers, right? The reason I’m asking is that my father spent a lot of time with flowers. He grew basic ones such as roses, chrysanthemums, rhododendrons, and tulips. But mostly he shot them, with a succession of cameras from Leicas and Hasselblads to digital Canons. He shot them on trips to the tropics, the Canadian Rockies, California, New England, Old England, France, and Italy. Most of the time, however, he shot them in his own backyard, the neighbor’s backyard, and nearby parks. He made weekend trips to local garden stores, ostensibly for peat moss, but he always brought his camera.  

If you asked him why, which I never did, because from childhood I was glad when he was shooting flowers and not me, he probably would have said he was testing lenses or new cameras, or was solving technical problems of composition, lighting, focus, exposure, and depth of field. But this would have been protesting too much. The fact was that he shot the sh&# out of flowers, from as early as I can remember up until he passed away last spring.

Was he doing more than honing his technical skills and testing equipment? I think so. My father loved flowers, their colors, shapes, and textures, their translucence and delicate beauty, and he lost himself in the challenge of coaxing something out of them. It was one of the few times in his life that he stopped to smell the roses. The small, intimate, and self-contained worlds he created in his floral photographs were alternately vibrant and lush or moody and ethereal; they were often magical and, as much as I hate to say it, sensual. They were certainly mechanical and technical exercises, but, however tentatively, they were also spiritual and artistic explorations.

Thoreau once said, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.” I think my father eventually came to grips with his inner poet, and with some of the lessons to be gleaned looking at flowers, and I think the tipping point was a trip to Monet’s gardens in Giverny in the spring of 2000. My father wrote ahead, submitted a portfolio, and obtained permission to shoot the grounds. Looking around at the artists sketching, and working alongside them, I think he finally saw himself as a kindred spirit.

At Giverny, my father primarily shot landscapes, another passion (and another story), but he returned to his backyard inspired and liberated, and proceeded to spend the summer vigorously and joyously shooting flowers. The images he took show greater self-assurance and confidence, they are bolder and literally more focused. The entire process seems more organic and intuitive: eye-hand-camera, experience and spontaneity, seeing and creating un-self consciously, and taking pleasure in the doing—knowing his equipment, knowing his technique, knowing flowers, and learning about himself. Thoreau would be proud.