B&W Photography as Botanical Illustration

 (Peter Rockstroh)

 

New frond unfurling on a sword fern (Nephrolepis sp.)

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting plants and their parts with such detail and precision that it can be used for taxonomical reference purposes, but often with such aesthetics that it can stand alone as artwork.

I have arrived at this definition of the term after many conversations with botanists, illustrators and art collectors.

Like anatomical illustration, it is a special niche in art since it requires from the artist a profound scientific knowledge of their subject while still allowing for personal interpretation.

Although photography is today’s main source for botanical illustrations in species descriptions and monographs, many purists only accept that traditional freehand drawings and paintings be considered as proper botanical illustration.

In order to capture exact scale, many modern illustrators also use camera lucida and drawing tubes to faithfully capture fine diagnostic details of flora.

History shows that photography and botanical illustration go hand-in-hand. Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877), a renaissance man credited with producing the first photographic image, created a process he called “photogenic drawing”, which allowed for the production of very precise copies of plants when exposed to light.

One of his first images was that of a plant. It was a salt print of a leaf and flower, produced to illustrate with high precision the shape and proportions of this specimen. It was, from conceptualization, intent and then on to final product, most definitely a form of botanical illustration.

In 1844 he published “The Pen in Nature”, considered to be the first mass-printed book of photographs. It presented both his invention and a collection of his images. This was the birth of the coffee-table art book. Since this publication, every camera owner - amateur or professional - has photographed plants and, more specifically, flowers. Yet only a few photographers have produced floral images that have stood the test of time. Noteworthy examples include those in Karl Blossfeldt´s “Art Forms in Nature” (1904), Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Tulips” (1990) and Imogen Cunningham´s “Two Callas” (1925), to name but a few.

Early photo of Platycerium veitchii, presented as Platycerium Alcicorne var. Veitchii from “Hortus Veitchii” (1906).

Beginning in the 1860s, some of the better known 19th century English plant importers and nurserymen, such as James Veitch & Sons together with other well-heeled individual collectors, kept a photographic register of their showier or more valuable material, although mainly of one plant family; the Orchidaceae.

Their images are now preserved in museum galleries, since they were mainly produced as albumen prints which require very specific conditions to curate.  

Today, many art galleries do not recognize photography as an acceptable technique for botanical illustrations, nor do some hidebound botanical illustrators. While the (my) definition accommodates photography as an acceptable alternative and a photograph can obviously render highly a precise image, contemporary botanical illustration has set such high standards that artistically it is a tough job to follow with a camera.

As is evident elsewhere on this website, I enjoy photographing plants. And, like many purists, I believe certain painstaking photographic processes are required to match the expectations of traditional manual illustration.

  • The first standard to me is permanence, which is why black and white film is my medium of choice. This is not a retro-justified, hipster idea. Scientific reference material should be archival. This is especially true considering the rate at which we are losing biodiversity today. The graphic material that registers the natural world for posterity should have a permanence of centuries. No other medium has this resistance to physical and chemical conditions. It obviously does not pretend to compete with colored botanical images but may be an alternative to pencil or ink drawings.

 

  • The second standard is resolution.  Botanical illustrations should be taken on medium and large format film, so large copies can be printed that display all necessary details for precise identification.

 

  • The third standard is aesthetics.  While clearly a matter of taste, properly exposed and developed color film can produce wonderful images. Likewise, digital imaging produces immediate results that can be fine-tuned to perfection in minutes with software. Both formats use color as the image’s most important aspect. 

A correctly exposed and focused photograph of a beautiful flower, done in color, will always be an acceptable reference image but will not necessarily fulfill the artistry of traditional botanical illustrations.

An acceptable reference image in black-and-white of that same colorful flower generally requires a lot more work to be merely acceptable. And it takes an additional effort to reach the standards of current botanical illustrations.

When a photographic image can record much more information than we are used to seeing, the subject becomes a hyper-realistic rendition of itself. I love images where the viewer can get lost in the details, such as that of the jungle floor shown below. There are fungi growing on certain leaves, weevil holes in almost any plant, and many more traces of the interactions throughout the image. Even such a static photographic image displays the full gamut of constant interactions.

I have tried to imbue an additional quality to my images of plants, for which I have yet to find the right word to describe it. I try to produce photographs that convey the sensation that people are looking at my subjects for the very first time. I especially enjoy this with common plants or plant forms that everyone has seen before and yet, when they see my photos, they realize what they are looking at but are seeing it in a different light.

That is one of the reasons I favor large format prints. They can grab a viewer’s attention by slapping him in the face with details he had never paid attention to before and lead him to visually explore subjects that they may have viewed as commonplace for most of their lives.

Over the past decades I have gathered a portfolio of plant images that fulfill these self-imposed standards. And I have enjoyed the results as much as the resulting conversations about the subjects. You may or may not agree as to whether they qualify as botanical illustrations, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

(clicking on images shown below will open them in an expanded lightbox)

Agave hurteri                                                        

The markings that newly-formed century plant rosette cores print onto that of each leaf below are both an etching and a photograph. The hard, outer edge of the immature leaf etches its outline into the soft tissue below leaving a low-relief image.  Once the outer leaf unfolds and allows light to reach the forming leaves, photosynthesis accentuates light and shadow to “fix” the image of a younger leaf’s margin. I used a light green filter here to increase contrast of this light-colored specimen, making it stand out among the hundreds of agaves that had been planted as a (very effective) natural fence in the Guatemalan Altiplano.

Monstera deliciosa                                                   

Although exotic aroids are very much in vogue again and collectors and horticulturists are tracking down the rarest and strangest members of the family, the ubiquitous swiss cheese plant is still one of the most iconic plants of the Neotropics. To me, it is one of the most attractive members of the Araceae. The shape and texture of its mature leaves and inflorescences make great photographic subjects and a fully-grown specimen climbing up the trunk of a large tree is about as jungle-ish as it can get.

Cecropia peltata                               

Trumpet trees are one of the underrated jewels of tropical successional habitats and gardens. They can grow extremely fast (some more than 6’/2 m a year), occupy very little floor space and develop a fairly large canopy in just a few years. They also attract birds and, in some areas, sloths. The undersides of their large, peltate leaves, once dry, show a beautiful pattern reminiscent of some pen and ink drawings.

Nepenthes x mixta ‘Superba’                         

When I look at the colorful traps of tropical pitcher plants, I am always boggled by the idea that this incredibly complex structure is actually a modified leaf lamina, while what looks like the leaf blade is a winged petiole. Over millions of years it shape-shifted from a sticky surface with stomata that could absorb nitrogenous compounds from decaying insects, to this specialized amphora that can visually and chemically attract specific prey, at its simplest. Relatively recent findings have shown even more complex relations, such as pitchers that also work as bat roosts, or others holding mock food items loaded with powerful laxatives. All these adaptations are designed to glean nitrogen, the precious nutrient unavailable to the rest of the plant world in some areas where these aliens grow.

For a Victorian-era tropical pitcher plant hybrid, what better than the black and white format?                                

Heliconia rostrata                              

I took this photo of a lobster claw plant inflorescence with an 8”x10” field camera on a rainy afternoon at home. I made three exposures, but only in one did I manage to capture the drop of water at the tip of the inflorescence. The large format negative captures amazing textures as can be seen on the flower´s bracts. These details, although not impossible to capture, become markedly more difficult to reproduce with smaller format film.

Nephrolepis sp. fiddleheads     

When sword fern fiddleheads unroll, their pubescent surface sends out translucent hairs that appear to glow when side lit against a dark background.  Young leaves of sword ferns that have recently opened show edges that seem to be barely one cell thick. These rows of narrow young cells are not only very delicate, but conduct light almost like an optic fiber, giving the plant an edge-glow that looks almost artificial.

Helianthus anuus        

The circular symmetry and texture-richness of sunflowers makes for very grateful subjects for photographers. I have often found other types of flowers with complex and fascinating shapes, yet very difficult to capture as an interesting image, let alone to produce a series from a single subject.

Tectaria mexicana                             

Like father like son. This and many other halberd fern species produce leaves that are small, translucid copies of the full growth forms. When the light is right, black and white film can capture this subtle luminescence in a palate of grays. Part of the magic of this effect is that the human eye can distinguish a much larger scale of discreet shades of gray than any other color. Far more than 50! This explains part of the appeal of the almost three-dimensional presence of subjects in good B&W prints.

Trandescantia zebrina 

The common wandering jew or inchweed, also known in Guatemala as chickenweed, is a familiar garden and vacant lot refugee. The high-contrast leaf coloration of this common backyard plant lends itself perfectly to work with color filters. The purple and silvery green leaves will appear deep black with white stripes, when photographed through a green filter (note; in black and white photography a color filter lightens the shade of its own color and darkens the spectral opposite).  Photographed through a magenta filter, it lightens the purple stripes and darkens the green areas. I chose to work with a green filter, as the magenta lowered overall contrast and the magnificent surface texture was lost.

Punica granatum                                                        

Some subjects just lead the way as soon as you look through the viewfinder. This was the case of this pomegranate flower, which reminded me of an elegant Art Deco bridge lamp. In contrast, the glowing fruit together with the texture-rich stem produced an image that makes the fruit look more like a Victorian library lamp.

Plerandra elegantissima

Plerandra elegantissima 1.jpg

A once common houseplant, better known under its older nursery name, Dizygotheca, or just “Dizzy”. Black and white photography grabs a colorful, three-dimensional subject and, no matter how detailed it is reproduced, reduces it to an abstract two-dimensional image in shades of gray. But if the light, exposure, development and printing process are handled correctly, the resulting image can suddenly exceed that of the subject. Small, mundane objects become cosmic in size and meaning, and our mind gives images grandiose interpretations. 

Spathiphyllum wallisii

Certain shapes can only be described as elegant or sensual. The curves of this peace lily spathe must have the proportions or geometry that elicits this type of response, as I have only sold this photograph to men. I love it when I find subjects like these, which despite being portrayed in a hyper-realistic style, are still interpreted as figurative abstracts. They make for very powerful subjects. 

Phragmipedium warczewiczianum

I’ve had this tropical slipper orchid since I first came to Colombia many years ago and it has flowered every year since. Their amazing flower form has made them attractive subjects for botanical artists, photographers and orchid collectors. While the function of these incredibly long sepals in several genera of slipper orchids is still not clear, they are probably useful in disseminating floral scents to attract their fly and bee pollinators.

Cocos nucifera

Some plants can be shown in a different light, to make a point and illustrate one or more specific features. Others can be shown in the same light but recorded onto a different type of film to enhance their characteristics.

I chose infrared film for this portrait of a coconut palm. This type of film records visible + infrared radiation, meaning it has a broader spectrum. Areas of the image that reflect visible light and infrared light will be overexposed. The sum of visible + infrared tends to produce negatives that are so dense (black) that they block the passage of light in the enlarger and appear totally paper white in the image. Fortunately, there are developers that can compensate for these broad exposure ranges, producing a negative that can reproduce the whole range of luminescence, with all of its visual textures.

Exotica Esoterica