Portraiture of the Plant
People look at me funny if I tell them I take portraits of plants. Sometimes I feel twelve years old and start telling stories about how I used to work for Glamour Shots, before the Pods came and showed me who was really in charge.
But of course plant portraiture has a long history. People were writing and drawing manuals of medicine and farming as far back as we have written records. Some of the oldest surviving Egyptian texts describe the herbs and extracts to be used in spells and rituals. The University of Delaware produced a superb retrospective of botanical illustrations. Many other resources are listed at the shuttermoments.ca Plant Images Online page.
Historians of photography often cite Karl Blossfeldt, who lived in the late 1800s, as the first person to make systematic photographic studies of plants. He combined an orderly scientific interest in botany with a designer's appreciation for regular lines, repetition, movement, and balance. In many ways his work anticipated the Art Deco aesthetic. (I had the good fortune to see an exhibition of his prints at the Tucson Botanical Garden; they are even sweeter as prints because of the patina of age.)
Many of the classic photographers used plant materials - Edward Weston's famous peppers come to mind, and Man Ray pulled a lot of weeds to include in his Rayograms. But the one who stands out for me is Imogen Cunningham. Where Blossfeldt's work delighted in geometric perfection and ideal abstracts, Cunningham's work is of a particular plant at a particular moment, enjoying it just as it is. Inevitably it reminds me of portrait photography.
Presently of course most of this work goes online. The Smithsonian Institution in the USA has a superbly catalogued, fully searchable database of botanical photographs - a fantastic resource, but like most such references, the photography is strictly utility-grade. A Getty search for "botanical" provides some more artistically-interesting browsing.
(The images to the left are from Mrs. Beeton's Cookbook, more formally known as The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wet and Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort published in London in 1861.)