The first plants in spring emerge with such fragile leaves that it is a wonder how these delicate structures can retain perfection after pushing up through the weight of the soil. Young plants grow rapidly, and their flower buds open into radiant blossoms that soon fade, giving rise to fruit or pods, destined to form and release hundreds of seeds for future plants.
Observing plant growth is one part of my creative process. Each photograph begins with my observation of the development and maturation of the plants in my garden. I plan my photographs by focusing on how to convey the beauty of the plant’s life cycle and which part of the life cycle to capture. When are flowers most beautiful? When will the pods explode with seeds? Devising a way to preserve this beauty long enough for a photograph is important. When cut, some plants collapse or fade almost instantly, while others remain vital for a surprisingly long time. Because I photograph in a studio, rather than in my garden, I need to decide whether to cut a flower or dig up the entire plant.
Planning and observing are portions of the process, but the exciting part is the actual photography and the transformation that takes place in my studio. I work with both strobe and hot lights to create either bright and fully lit imagery or subdued and quiet views. Two important criteria that I use to portray the “personality” of a plant are the angle of viewing and how close I set my camera. I light each petal, leaf, stamen, pistil, or seedpod to reveal in detail the beauty of natural form and function.
I create most of my images using transparency film, although recently I have started to photograph with a digital camera. While film or an electronic photo detector is used to record the image, printing of the color images is mainly done digitally, with the prints sometimes as large as 40″ × 60″ or 50″ × 50″. The newest digital printers, using eight different pigments, can reproduce a wide range of colors. The photographs are printed on watercolor papers, both hot press and cold press, as well as on handmade papers with interesting surfaces, which lend a painterly feel to the prints.
Many of the black and white photographs are platinum prints. These prints are contact prints that are made using Arches watercolor paper coated by hand with a light-sensitive mixture containing platinum and palladium. The photographic negative, the same dimensions as the final print, is created from the original negative. This large negative is laid on top of the coated paper and exposed under ultraviolet (UV) light. The UV light changes the platinum/palladium under the light areas (fully exposed) of the negative to its elemental forms that build up and bind to the paper. The UV light under darker areas of the negative (less exposed) causes conversion of platinum/palladium to varying degrees. When the UV-exposed print is washed, the unbound platinum/palladium washes away, leaving lighter areas with varying tones of gray. Platinum/palladium prints have rich, deep tones because the image is actually embedded in the paper rather than lying in an emulsion on the surface of the paper (as in silver gelatin prints). The palladium in the mixture creates deep warm black color in the prints.
Adamson Editions in the District of Columbia prints most of the color photographs. Martin Axon in Madison, Connecticut, prints the platinum/palladium images. Some prints are available as Ilfachrome photographic prints. This process is used to obtain the vibrant red and purple colors seen in some flowers.
For almost twenty years I have photographed transitions of my garden. Just as individual plants have a natural cycle, so too does the entire garden. After several years, conditions of sun and shade in the garden change. Also, many of the perennials, bushes and trees mature. My garden offers me a wide variety of photographic opportunities to view not only its beauty, but also the passage of time experienced visually through the “soul” of my plants.