Flowers Fascinate in a new show at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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                                      Karl Blossfeldt 1928. Photogravures

Flowers have always fascinated. In an intriguing exhibition entitled Unearthed: Photography’s Roots, The Dulwich Picture Gallery, endeavours to bring us its story of plant photography, from 1840 up to the present day. Taking as its starting point botanical science, the show reveals not so much the science of the time, but the pioneers and the artworks they produced unwittingly. In the latter part of the show – from the Modernists onwards – the producers are artists and the image has taken on a philosophical bent.

This is a show that worked for me. It was well-laid out chronologically. It contained enough prints to whet my appetite for the subject (100 to be exact) and whereas it did contain the odd superstar photographer like Robert Mapplethorpe, a decent number of excellent prints on show, were new to me.

Anna Atkins
Vol. 1, part. 1, Plate 55. Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state and in fruit

I had not heard of Anna Atkins for example, who, as far back as 1853, produced not only exquisite but contemporary-looking images. Her white algae floating in a coloured plate of blue stands out in all the black and white images of the time. Her photograms, conceived without a camera, were referred to as cyanotypes.

Memorable too was the Charles Jones and Karl Blossfeldt room. I am drawn to the idea of the accidental artwork produced by the amateur. Passionate gardener, Jones produced some fine still-lifes simply by arranging his potatoes, cabbages, cauliflower judiciously and pleasingly. The lighting is perfect, the sheen off the onion and tomato skins works wonderfully, all of this black and white photograph effected with a glass plate camera. Equally stunning but quite different are Karl Blossfeldt’s architectural close ups of plants. At first, they were intended as design aids for the manufacturing industry – only later was Blossfeldt persuaded to exhibit and sell his work in 1925. 

By the time we reach the Modernist section in the show, the photographers are professional artists. Here the flower had taken on a symbolic role. It is both anthropomorphic and sensual. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotically charged Tulips (1984) have stood the test of time and express desire and attraction so perfectly. Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia Blossom 1925 is a masterpiece– the delicate, tightly coiled carpels and stamen of the magnolia flower, perfectly evoking female vulnerability.

Early colour photography dating as far back as 1884 was an interesting inclusion in the exhibition. In his studio, Japanese photographer, Kazumasa Ogawa, was able to produce images with twenty-five colour tones and was well ahead of his time. The images alas – I was less keen on – the flowers insipid, one dimensional – like wallpaper decoration. 

All in all however, a comprehensive, fascinating show – Highly recommended for a summer visit.

KH

Unearthed: Photography’s Roots is on until 30th August 2021 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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