Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reflecting on flower photography

click photo to enlarge
From, broadly speaking, the sixteenth century to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was, among fine art painters, a hierarchy of genres: that is to say the subjects that it was deemed "best" to paint. The order of these genres changes slightly with time and country, but nonetheless shows a remarkable degree of unanimity. At the top, judged the most worthy of the artist's attention and the audience's time, was the "history painting", works that depicted subjects based on religion, allegory, myth or significant past events. At the bottom was the still life, paintings showing flowers, vases, fruit, household objects, food etc. Between these extremes, in descending order of importance, we find portraits (unsurprising in the days before photography, rather more so after the mid-nineteenth century), scenes of everyday life, landscapes and animal painting.

The revolution that art faced as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth shook this hierarchy of genres almost to pieces. History painting virtually disappeared, as did animal painting, but all the other genres continued and were much more equally plundered by painters who also added to the mix semi-abstract and abstract subjects. Interestingly, for a period, the somewhat derided still life (including flowers) assumed an importance in the painter's oeuvre that earlier centuries couldn't have imagined (with the exception perhaps of sixteenth and seventeenth century Flanders).

Today, within photography, there is something of a hierarchy of genres. I won't list what I think it is, and it's certainly not as fixed as it was in painting. However, I will tell you what I think is at or near the bottom - flower photography! At least that's the distinct impression I get from what I see and read. Why, I wonder, do some photographers disdain a subject that many great painters found to be very worthy of their attention? Do Marc Chagall's famous words, "Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers - and never succeeding", hold no truth for photographers? I certainly have no hesitation in choosing flowers or other still life arrangements for my images. As a basis for working with and exploring colour, light and shade, line, mood and all the other facets that we can bring to photography, I think flowers offer a lot. I can understand photographers being drawn to subjects and approaches that preclude flowers, but not their disparagement of them as a subject: that shows a limited vision and ignorance.

Today's photograph shows a couple of the blooms on one of our Impatiens hawkeri (New Guinea Busy Lizzie). This particular variety has beautiful orange/red flowers that go uncommonly well with its dark green/brown foliage. I took some care to find a directional natural light in a relatively dark room to make these flowers glow and show off as best I could the qualities that Chagall acknowledged he could never match.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 100mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/3
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off