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.

Wingate Paine

Originally posted December 11, 2008 on

My first exposure to the photography of Wingate Paine occurred about 10 years ago when a portfolio of his work turned up in a gallery on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. As I sifted through hundreds of unframed images, I learned that the then-obscure Paine had been a leading fashion and advertising photographer in the early 1960’s who quit that scene to do a homage to womanhood. The work I was looking at was erotically charged and cinematic: think Mad Men meets Blow-Up.

What caught my attention was the mood—the images channeled Mary Quant’s London, though Paine was as American as Ansel Adams. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the women were stunningly beautiful, and often more naked than not.

Paine himself had an unusual and varied career trajectory. Born in 1915 into a Boston Brahmin family—namesake of a Founding Father—he eschewed his hereditary connections in banking and law to become first a Marine captain, then by turns a yoga devotee, wine connoisseur, photographer, filmmaker, and later a sculptor and Buddhist teacher and writer. After a long period of neglect, Paine’s stock has been rising in recent years. His work has been turning up at auctions such as Swann’s, Wright, and Rago, and has been shown in galleries in New York and Los Angeles. Tonight, the first solo exhibition of his photographs opens at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York City.  Running through January 17, the show features over 75 vintage prints from Paine’s personal archive, drawn primarily from his 1966 book Mirror of Venus. Co-written by Francoise Sagan and Federico Fellini, Mirror of Venus has been reprinted 10 times in four languages. Paine’s photographs of three models/muses provide vicarious pleasures, if not titillation. Tame by today’s standards, the book pushed boundaries in its day. Though tinged for us with 60’s nostalgia, the images remain visually fresh, if only because the decade keeps cycling back into fashion. The text, unfortunately, seems dated to our post-feminist sensibilities.

Witness Francoise Sagan: “For a woman the time/is often the time./After the time,/it is sometimes the time;/but before the time, it is never the time.” I know I don’t understand women; I certainly don’t understand Francoise Sagan. At least Fellini is more straightforward: “Why can’t we always live in a house full of women like this(?)” Why indeed.  For an experience that is highly evocative and a bit provocative, try the book, or better yet, see the exhibition.