The wondrous blend of simplicity and complexity that defines a flower seems perfectly suited to still-life photography, and throughout the medium's history, photographers have explored floral arrangements on a number of levels--from the purely formal and descriptive to the richly abstract, and as a natural subject for color work. Given that still-life portraiture allows the painter or photographer to exert maximal design control, it is also worth noting that the naturalism of flowers--no two exactly alike--injects a wild note into the most controlled studio setting.
The examples in this exhibit date, for the most part, from the onset of photographic modernism, when the camera had been freed to capture any subject in any way. Thus, these floral works represent a determination on the part of several generations of photo artists to reinvigorate and reinvent the traditional genre, and so they do. All the same, the few examples from photography's early days--such as Adolphe Braun's albumen-print floral sprays from the 1850s, or early anonymous studies, including colorful autochromes--hardly seem out of place among later works, for they bring comparable rigor to their use of lighting and in their compositional flair.
Indeed, flowers tend to look interesting no matter how they are arranged or framed, but they can be hard to light well, given the free curl of their growth patterns, and the multiple petals--alternating the hidden and the visible--of their blossoms. Artists, such as Jean-Marie Auradon, in the 1930s, incorporated shadow and reflection as major aspects, as opposed to mere incidentals, in floral studies, and went beyond the typical, frontal still-life composition to include bird's-eye and extreme close-up views, making use of the picture plane in ways that proved innovative and influential.
Other artists from the same era, such as Barbara Morgan, went further, creating surreal photomontages, utilizing oversized floral images juxtaposed with scenes of daily life. While still others, such as George Eisenman, produced startlingly novel modern effects, such as x-ray images of flowers.
As for more contemporary works, such as the ghostly floral still lifes of Polish master Krzysztof Pruszkowski or the numinous blossoms of Olivia Parker, they tend to evoke a neo-Pictorialism that is, after all, a hallmark of postmodern art, circling back as it does to classical modes while putting a fresh twist on form and content. And not to ignore one of floral art's most enduring associations--the eroticism of stamen and anther--these images also suggest all the fecundity of the natural world as it bursts to life in infinite ways.