In the late 1830s, the Welsh botanist John Dillwyn Llewelyn began making photographs of orchids he’d grown at his home near Swansea. Llewelyn’s pictures are thought to be among the first to use the photographic process to identify plant specimens, though he himself found them lacking. “I have amused myself with making Daguerreotype [sic] portraits [of several flowers], and from their exact accuracy they are interesting,” he wrote in an 1842 letter to the director of London’s Kew Gardens, “though the want of color prevents them from being beautiful as pictures.”
Color appeared in photography some decades later, but the question remains: Can photographers capture the vitality of flowers compellingly, innovatively, and beautifully? A new book gives a resounding yes.
Flora Photographica: The Flower in Contemporary Photography by William A. Ewing and Danaé Panchaud (Thames & Hudson, 2022) features 200 photos taken over the past 30 years. The lavishly illustrated book follows its 1991 predecessor, which covered the period from 1835 to 1990. The newest edition features more than 120 artists from 30 countries working with digital and analog photography in a variety of modes, including performance, collage, and textiles.
Some of the most provocative images come from artists who use flowers to take on today’s pressing political and social issues. In the book’s first photo, taken at the 2020 Belarus protests by the Polish photojournalist Jędrzej Nowicki, we see the hand of a demonstrator gripping a small bouquet of white flowers tied with white ribbon, the color of the opposition. “The Pansy Project” by Paul Harfleet documents single pansies that the artist plants at the site of homophobic abuse. And Thirza Schaap’s brightly-colored, modern-day vanitas “Plastic Ocean Series” features floral still lifes made of discarded waste, evoking what the artist calls “a sense of ecological grief.”
Other photos are personal, documentary, and playful. Some of Ewing and Panchaud’s selections riff on the way flowers have been depicted in the past, while others push in new directions. Flowers are a well-worn subject matter in the history of art, appearing in human production well before Llewelyn’s snaps in the 19th century. This book shows that they remain a powerful springboard for visual experimentation and meaning.