Tracing the spread of plants through the photographic landscape

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04, from the series Nearly Every Rose on the Barriers in Front of the Parliament, 2017, Rafał Milach

Writer Joanna L. Cresswell meditates on the spread of plants through today's photographic landscape.

In November 1928, the philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin was commissioned to write a review of the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s photobook Urformen der Kunst for the Berlin-based periodical Die Literarische Welt. Translating roughly as “original forms of art,” Urformen der Kunst is an expansive collection of photographic enlargements of plant forms. Within the review, entitled News About Flowers, Benjamin wrote favourably of the work, noting the technical precision that must have gone into the making of each of the photographs. ‘Whether we accelerate the growth of a plant through time-lapse photography or show its form in forty-fold enlargement, in either case a geyser of new image-worlds hisses up,’ he said.

from the series In Between Stage, 2016, Jungmin Lee

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from the series In Between Stage, 2016, Jungmin Lee

from the series In Between Stage, 2016, Jungmin Lee

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from the series In Between Stage, 2016, Jungmin Lee

Whole universes seemed to emanate from these sober observations of plant forms for him; fragmented reminisces of architecture and the curvature of the human body revealing themselves in every picture. With Blossfeldt’s plant pictures as his case study, Benjamin essentially made an argument for photography’s ability to shape and extend human vision. Furthermore, he posited plants as a sound metaphorical conduit through which we can probe human experience. In other words, he told us that when we photograph plants, we are often talking about everything else.

Plants have grown and spread through the landscape of contemporary photography like weeds, or mushrooms, or ivy, and the ways they have been utilised in front of the lens are tenfold. There are elements that link photography and plants fundamentally, inherent in the nature of their coupling since the medium’s inception: light, time, their properties of representation, and even their erotic or fetishist statuses. Like photography, plants are both evidence and allegory, illustrative but with endless narrative potential too. They traverse the fields of anthropology, anatomy, sexuality, geography, politics, cultural history and more, allowing photographers to co-opt the visual languages of each realm for their own practices.

Plants have been used by photographers as straight evidence, as in Mathieu Asselin’s five-year photographic odyssey into the long history of the global biotechnology corporation Monsanto. Here, photographs of GM crops and ecological damage are used to build a compelling case against the company’s devastating practices, and their ongoing effects on both people and land. Plants have also been used as symbol, as in Taryn Simon’s photographic series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, which interrogates the bouquets of flowers that are often found strategically placed on tables during the signings of historic political accords, treaties and decrees. With the help of a botanist who analysed archival photographs of the events, Simon recreated the artfully arranged bouquets for a series of staged, almost clinical photographs. Flanked by powerful men, the flowers are supposed to convey a sense of occasion, saying something about how theatres of power are performed and maintained. This thread of symbolism follows through into Rafal Milach’s recent work, for which he photographed roses attached to barriers outside Polish parliamentary buildings during a 2017 protest against judiciary reform. For Milach, the roses are a symbol of the ‘simple, non-heroic gestures’ that come to the fore in moments of public dissent, as well as a means of drawing attention to a string of alarming changes to contemporary Poland’s political landscape.

"Like photography, plants are both evidence and allegory, illustrative but with endless narrative potential too."

from the series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015, Taryn Simon

Memorandum on Security Assurances in Connection with Ukraine’s Accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Budapest Memorandum) Budapest, Hungary, December 5, 1994,

from the series Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015, Taryn Simon

Adopted for their sculptural and decorative properties, plants have been used as straight subject matter or canvas too, as in the work of Bownik who deconstructs them and then puts them back together for new pictures, or Stephen Gill who brings flowers into collage-form on the surface of his photographs. In Gill’s Night Procession – for which he placed movement-triggered infrared cameras around the forest floor of his Swedish home, and then incorporated local plant pigments into his final master prints – plants are raw material for the photographic process in yet further physical ways.

Plants have also formed part of countless photographers’ personal responses to the places in which they find themselves, as in Jaako Kahilaniemi’s 100 Hectares of Understanding, which saw the artist photograph organic matter retrieved from land he inherited in an attempt to make sense of it, or Edmund Clark, who, in My Shadow’s Reflection, pressed and photographed plants collected from the site of a prison he spent three years documenting. Elsewhere, young Korean artist Jungmin Lee reconciles the impact of moving between cultures – from Korea to the Netherlands – by conflating and superimposing images of plants. Tulips, Holland’s most famous symbol, despite their little- known foreign origins, are overlaid onto images of coniferous plants – used commonly in the Netherlands to demarcate neighbouring plots of land – in abstract washes of colour.

The transformative properties of both photography and nature complement one another. In glasshouses and allotments, gardens and forests, fields and farms, moments of personal and creative discovery continue to unfold for artists. Whether surveying them from afar as a detached observer or more obsessively pulling them from their context and retreating back into their studios, photographers will always be drawn to plants.

Untitled, from the series My Shadow’s Reflection, 2017, Edmund Clark

Untitled, from the series My Shadow’s Reflection, 2017, Edmund Clark

Untitled, from the series Night Procession, 2014 – 2017, Stephen Gill

Untitled, from the series Night Procession, 2014 – 2017, Stephen Gill

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer based in London and the former editor of Unseen Magazine and Self Publish, Be Happy. She writes on topics surrounding art, literature and cultural history for an array of magazines, journals and publications including 1000 Words, Aperture (The PhotoBook Review), The British Journal of Photography, Elephant Magazine, Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, The Photographers' Gallery and more. She is the editor of such publications as Self Publish, Be Happy: A DIY Photobook Manual and Manifesto (Aperture, 2015) and has contributed texts to further books including New Scandinavian Photography (Blackdog, 2015). She is currently working towards her first book of essays.

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