This is an ongoing project that I return to every now and then. It started about 14 years ago, when I had a garden and wanted to do something different with flower photography. One day I took a picture frame with a piece of white board inside it, and placed it behind a low-growing clump of flowers. I don’t remember how I propped the frame up but I did, and I made some photographs. I also placed a blank book behind flowers and photographed the flowers against, or “in” the open blank book. I liked the play of different levels of reality – a “real” flower, a photograph of a flower as if it was a picture in a book, and the overarching idea of removing a piece of nature from its environment to “capture” it, as one does in a flower painting, or an herbarium specimen. Is one really any more real than the other?
Six years ago I played with the idea again, placing a bouquet of wildflowers I picked in front of a picture frame that contained a white mat and glass. I photographed it outdoors, where the natural light threw shadows of the flowers onto the frame (#6). Then I placed the bouquet next to the frame so that the flowers’ shadows and reflections fell onto the frame. I photographed that, and included some of the flowers and stems in the composition (#7). This increased the complexity of the image, which now included the “real” flowers and leaves, their shadows, and their reflections. Slivers of reflected sky added blue to the colors on the glass. The photograph itself is a form of representation, a trace we perceive from the original object, a step removed from looking at the flowers themselves. I am often just as delighted, or more delighted, to look at the traces things leave – a shadow, a reflection – as I am to look at the thing itself.
This goes back to Kant’s Ding an sich, or the thing in itself. From Wikipedia:
Kant argued the sum of all objects, the empirical world, is a complex of appearances whose existence and connection occur only in our representations. Kant introduces the thing-in-itself as follows:
And we indeed, rightly considering objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances, viz., the way in which our senses are affected by this unknown something.
— Prolegomena, § 32
It’s a good reminder that it’s all about what and how our senses perceive the world; we can’t say that we know anything outside our sensory experiences of it. On a certain level, it’s all representation.
This spring I returned again to the idea of photographing natural objects on blank books, or in empty frames. I draped a few vines growing in pots across a piece of heavy paper, put a frame on top, and photographed it, making sure the composition included leaves outside the picture frame as well as inside it. The urge to frame something is akin to the urge to put things into words, in a way. We want to preserve and identify and remember a piece of nature, so we remove it, name it, describe it, photograph it, etc. We take these processes for granted, but they’re worth thinking about. Allowing plants to trail outside the frame is a reminder that we can’t really define or capture anything that’s alive, let alone capture any given moment. And that’s no reason to stop trying. There are people who would say that experiencing the flower or the vine directly is superior to viewing its photograph or shadow or reflection. Maybe not. Maybe each way can be valued equally.
1. – 5. were taken recently, outdoors on a deck. The first has stems of vines that are growing in pots, pulled down across a piece of heavy paper, with an old empty frame placed on top. The second is a dead Angelica leaf; the next three are dried parrot tulip flower petals. In #5 the wire on the back of the frame is included. I like both versions – with and without the wire – without the wire it is a more logical picture, but maybe the version with the wire prompts you to think more.
6. & 7. were taken several years ago and are described above. Sadly, the place where I picked that bouquet is no longer graced by wildflowers. It’s a deserted railway bed. Someone got rid of all the butterfly bushes and most of the other wildflowers that were growing happily there – why, I don’t know.
8. (described above) was taken with my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica, which I bought used from someone on ebay, around 2001. It used floppy disks! You could put ten images on each disk, then just pop the disk into your computer, and you had your 3 megapixel images to work with. What an amazing change it was from taking a rolls of film from the point and shoot camera to the drugstore for developing.
9. & 10. were taken recently. I have many small collections of shells and other objects from nature. I have a number of blank books, too. Years ago at an estate sale in a wealthy little Connecticut town, I stumbled across a pile of high quality blank books and bought most of them, for a song. Maybe the home owner had been a book printer – were these the samples?
11. & 12. are different views of a dried Angelica leaf on an old blank book. 13. shows a Queen Anne’s lace flower on a spiral-bound blank book that has black pages.
14. shows a collection of things I picked up on beaches in Oregon and California on a recent trip, arranged on the cover of a large blank book bound in black cloth. The mushroom was found on the beach, too! The black rocks are from a remote beach on northern California’s Lost Coast called Shelter Cove. You get there by foot, plane, or boat, or by carefully driving 45 minutes down a rough, steeply winding road that’s nearly washed out at one point. One way in, one way out – just hope you don’t get sick when you’re out there. They call the beach black sand but it’s really made of smooth black pebbles, and the shell fragments were hiding among them. But I digress….