Sunday, May 7, 2017

Still Life, Close Up

"The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces." Susan Sontag

Watering can, sedum, pots

Photography gives us the power to isolate scenes from their context and make them appear self-sufficient: above, a watering can, some plants in pots, and nature poking through and around. Instant still-life composition, if you will. This approach can uncover loads of subject matter in gardens, which while unified wholes, comprise an array of scenic components. Any number of them in fact, for it's a bit arbitrary where one scene begins and another leaves off. But the shutter resolves any ambiguity with finality, peeling off a distinct slice of reality and rendering it as self sufficient. And in our digital times, compositions can simply be re-framed over and over, until some combination of content and angle emerges that pleases the eye. Why one collection of objects suits the eye while another does not remains something of a mystery, a product of aesthetics, opportunity, and subjective intent. Also, the frame of the camera itself, the rectangular boundaries that can be aimed horizontally or vertically, brings out modes of seeing that aren't necessarily evident in an identical way to the naked eye. 

Cluster of fallen cones, from an Atlas Cedar

Releasing the shutter determines the take, while any beauty revealed remains in the eye of the beholder. I haven't reflected on where the urge to assemble things into still-life compositions or to focus on patterns or details comes from. But I seem always to have had it in my own photography (my godmother painted still-life settings and close-ups) and I am still enjoying the search for a good cluster many years on. 'Good clusters' almost invariably have a certain innocence or humbleness or even a naievete about them, for me at least: no pictures of carrion or mayhem or rank destruction, although slow decline, marks of wear, even demise can reveal beauty in everyday objects. And I have difficulty sharply distinguishing still-life from close-up photography, so in my approach they tend to shade into a single thing or at least to exist on a continuum. I'm offering a few takes here as eye-bait and to illustrate how simple things - as often found together by chance as intentionally placed - can yield if not outright beauty, then at least visual interest when focused upon and isolated. Of course, the momentary light they're seen in matters too, structuring the impression they leave - and in some sense the collection of objects or patterns actually is the light it's shown in. 

Snail completing a long stretch across a gap between paving stones

Sometimes you just happen upon the subject matter, as when I noticed a snail (above) patiently crossing a deep gulf between paving stones. We only see these snails after rains, while the ground is still moist enough that they can move around without dehydrating. This picture involves an element of chance: here the snail is just completing a prodigious stretch across the gap, contracting its body into its shell by drawing the shell over it, so as to complete its forward movement. But while chance timing is a great generator of potential pictures (this scene changed in a slow-motion moment) I also return to certain favoured garden objects that I include regularly in still-life compositions. These items are like props that I deploy to catch garden effects, such as the watering can in the opening shot. They can be placed to model a specific impression of light at a particular moment or for a seasonal effect. The watering can confirms the nature of the scene portrayed and implies something about the garden it's abstracted from. I would say that the shot of the snail is more 'close-up' than still life, perhaps especially because it has implied motion; and you could say that the following picture with weathered chairs below (other favoured objects) is more scenic than still-life.

Weathered chairs with emphatic shadow lines

Quite apart from my reliable metal watering can and weathered chairs, the garden's plants furnish unlimited opportunities to frame photos as still lives. Perhaps this practice bends or stretches the notion of still-life even further, but freezing objects at the moment the shutter releases does guarantee that those objects appear 'still'. I personally prefer it when a well-rendered cluster of objects combines elements of spontaneity and arrangement, so there is a 'found' aspect incorporated into the picture (by 'found', I mean some force other than conscious human intention is engaged in helping bring off the arrangement, like time, weather, or simply chance placements). The next shot is an example of this blend of intention and discovery: the pot and rocks are my choice, but the blossoms from a neighbour's wandering wisteria have spontaneously added themselves to the scene. I find this an endlessly entertaining garden game to play, with the added benefit of yielding pictures that capture particular moments. There is, I know, if not an artificiality, then an unreality about this, as all growing things are actually in motion and fall somewhere between being born and if not outright dying, then dying back. But, so too are the fruits and flowers in a painted still-life, and even the vessels frozen in the painting's singular moment likely wind up smashed down the line.

Placed rock cluster, pot with cuttings, found wisteria blossoms

To me, flowers themselves are among the most intriguing garden subjects for still-life or close-up compositions. Below is a shot of a bearded iris that isolates an intricate bloom with its fetching falls against a backdrop of blurry green tinged with yellow, which amplifies the overall delicacy of impression. I like using the technique of a blurred context for contrast with the principal subject, where the background is an effect rather than a discernible collection of objects.

A single iris bloom makes a still-life composition

Below is another frame, taken on a different April day. Both the iris above and the tulip below are plants inherited with the garden, thirty years ago this spring. I've helped them to continue to flourish on this site by periodically dividing and replanting them in freshened soil, and they have responded by reliably adding their simple beauty to spring's captivating narrative. I've come to realize by close observation that in Victoria, BC, with its temperate climate and slow, moist spring, the spring-flowering plants actually have early, middle, and late varieties (most years), which if consciously deployed can lend a layering effect to a flowering season by extending the length of its components. I was unaware of this potential for floral differentiation growing up in Ontario, where spring comes in a rush and everything flowers all at once. The tulip below is in the middle-to-late part of tulip-time hereabouts, helping push the season into a fifth week of flowering. This time some purplish hints in the blurred background enhance the pink of the tulip flower.

Tulip flower thrown into relief against a distant background

Another thing I enjoy exploring in plants-as-subjects is the vast array of impressions they transmit over the course of their typically short flowering lifespan, from early appearance to full-on flourishing (as above), and even so far as the beauty of colour in seed pods, caught just prior to the plant dying (as pictured below). Here annual lunaria has set large seeds that are just discernible within its thin translucent pods, shown while the plant is still living, but not that long before it begins to bleach to grey. Lunaria, known as 'honesty' in England, is referred to as 'Chinese money plant' in Asia, and simply as 'silver dollars' in the USA. The latter two names refer to the coin-like quality of its dried seed pods. In 1884, Van Gogh painted a lovely still-life of honesty's whitened pods in a vase with other floral elements around it.

Lunaria has set its seed in coin-shaped pods

Camas lilies are native to our small peninsula on Southern Vancouver Island, a key landscape signifier in spring's slow, spectacular flourish. The quintessential meadow flower, they thrust up dramatically under our native Garry oaks before they leaf out, seemingly appearing from nowhere (as bulbs do) in sometime between March and April, initially strikingly blue-tinged in bloom, but soon running towards purple as they open out. The scene below captures the briefly blue moment quite nicely, before the individual flowerlets explode in bloom. I am particularly fond of these dramatic local lilies, which I reintroduced to a site structured around a gathering of mature oaks. They are a vestige of the extensive Camas prairies once maintained by controlled burning of the underbrush by the Coast Salish peoples, the original inhabitants of Victoria and environs. Ironically, it was the luxuriant flowering of these spring bulbs that caused the British explorers to describe this first-nation-groomed coastal prairie as "a perfect Eden", not ever understanding the role of human intention or its utilitarian purpose behind the paradisial emergence.

Camas flowers before the turn to purple

Close-up and still life allow us to observe a cluster of objects, or a pattern made striking by angle and light, and to catch it in a framed view with the camera. Each is a distinct moment in time, frozen by the frame. I obviously enjoy associating objects through the lens, which is something that can be done equally well inside the house. The next still-life composition catches an interesting (to my eye at least) combination of shapes, patterns and tones, with the added complexity of reflection in a mirror. The gentle softness of indirect exterior light gives this shot its mellow, peaceful quality.

Mellow light for a cluster of objects intensified through reflection

The house-and-garden duo furnishes many opportunities to frame scenic niches, and to catch the two in combination in changing lights. Because our 1913 house is panelled and comes with ceilings that are beamed or otherwise spatially divided, potential compositions based on isolating clustered details abound. This capability exists in part because our eyes today are fully habituated to seeing photographs of fragments of things, parts taken to stand for the wholes they've been detached from, and yet still capable of invoking mood for the absent totality. We are able to enjoy even the discontinuity effected by the mechanism of the lens and the frame of the image, because our eyes are not much affected by the arbitrariness of its closure at the edges.

Light and shadow effects as still-life

This house also receives a great deal of sunlight, due to its placement on a hill with many windows facing east, south and west. One effect is that the inside receives changing light throughout the course of a day, modifying the mood inside its interior spaces. This allows the framing of many views of patterns and clusters of objects, with scenic nature often glimpsed through windows as part of the scene. 

Recycled stained glass window, itself a still-life composition

Light through windows is endlessly fascinating to my eye, here a stained glass window seen from within a garden shed and backlit by daylight. This window, one of a pair acquired by chance at auction many years before the shed crystallized, had a long life prior to landing in its current position, having been part of another building somewhere else. I bought these windows based on the fanciful thought that the flower theme, though rather deco-modernist, would go well in a garden structure that I designed to be observed from the house. As I wasn't actively contemplating building one at that moment, it turned out to be a great choice when the idea actually could come to fruition. 

Cluster of chive flowers in an unearthed antique aspirin bottle

One day I was taken by the simple beauty of a some chive flowers in an old aspirin bottle viewed in fading afternoon light, against a backdrop of deco tile. The bottle was retrieved from a midden in the yard that served as a final resting place for hard goods in the days before garbage collection and recycling in this locale, unearthed on site while turning over a garden bed. The combination comprises a humble still-life of found and grown objects, reflecting a bit of the outside world brought inside and placed in a piece of the inside world that was retrieved from outside after having been tossed outside decades prior (got that?).

Montbretia flowers bring a foretaste of autumn's fiery colour palette

Many garden still-lives or close-ups convey a background sense of the season they represent - flowers flower whenever they do in the unfolding garden season and imply their place and time in the sequence of bloom. The quality of the light itself can be seasonally revealing. The picture above is of Montbretia, which here flowers in later summer and prefigures the fall colour shift. However, seasonality can be made to play an even more explicit role in defining the overall composition. Below is an example of snow's presence truly defining a scene, in a rather sombre way here due to the dullness of the light on that day. This lack of punch in the light actually reinforces an abstract, monochrome quality, making the scene appear almost black and white (b+w photography amplifies lines of force and spatial presence in its renderings) but for a hint of mustardy yellow on the south face of the limbs.

Monochrome light, snow on oak limbs

Just as snow reliably conveys wintry conditions, fallen leaves signify autumn's decisive impact on plants. This picture catches the warmth of fall coloration and the sculpting of the leaf as it has dried out.

Nothing says autumn like fallen leaves, here big leaf maple

Freezing rain in winter can also lend dramatic impact to the appearance of plants, giving even contextual plantings renewed potential to serve as subjects for still-life. Seeing the physical world through a glazed coating is visually quite astounding, rendering the ordinary elements of everyday life intriguing to look at anew. The aftermath of freezing rain makes me want to go wandering in the wonderland of special effects, seeking after visual interest and knowing that I won't be disappointed. The next shot is of a clump of ornamental grass inclined under the weight of a thick coating of ice, a structure within a solid that's totally on view.

Freezing rain imprisons grass in translucent ice

The next shot, taken after the same ice storm, shows how universal the coating of frozen rain is, here emphasized on the thin strands of wire fencing. Brilliant sunshine reflecting from the glassy edges brings the ice right up to the eye, which notices the rolling quality of the horizontal wire (traces of the spool it came from) more than it otherwise might. I like the simplicity and relative peacefulness of the composition.

Page wire fencing coated with frozen rain emphasizing forms

One winter day I happened to be working in the back garden, collecting the debris shaken loose from trees during the latest winter windstorm. I was taken by the array of bits and pieces of lichen, mosses and funghi littered across the lawn, sometimes appearing on a single chunk of oak branch, and invoking the unique colour palette of these wet-season plants. So I pulled an assortment of random bits together into a cluster on a garden bench, and from that derived the following shot as a creative clustering of this aerial debris. The picture 'notices' it by concentrating it into a group, something our eye wouldn't make appear otherwise. I enjoy its shapes and colours immensely - the aqua tints especially.

Found among the debris downed by a winter storm: funghus and lichen assort

Many garden plants interact uniquely with their environment to create special effects. For example, seasoned gardeners often notice the particular way that rain pools on a foxglove's tubular flowers, forming distinct droplets as gravity gradually draws the moisture down to ground. Something about the flower seems to repel the water, forcing it to collect as droplets. You can almost feel it moving downwards despite being frozen into a still picture. These effects are transient, so if you're to catch them you need to keep your camera ready to hand. I like to garden that way myself, with the camera nearby. That way, if something suggests itself to the eye, or the light suddenly turns transcendent, the means of recording the passing effects are ready to hand. As often as not, that will simply become a still-life composition. Or, is it just a close-up? Or maybe a detail?

Raindrops clustering on foxglove flowers

My point is simply that even the humblest of gardens, say an assortment of pots on a deck or a terrace, offers the opportunity to render plants into still-life compositions. Van Gogh did it memorably with a cluster of picked flowers in a vase, a painting now famous that remained obscure in his lifetime  (as did virtually everything he painted), but almost certainly gave him intense satisfaction. Look around and you'll see these opportunities lying everywhere. Go ahead and compose. It's a way to preserve a fragment of the flow of time alive for future contemplation.

Outside-in as spring: crocuses sport their captivating markings