Monday, April 27, 2015


Roses, 1991

AT SOME POINT IN EARLY SPRING OF 1991 SOMEONE SENT US FLOWERS. My girlfriend was living in New York; we were going through a year-long breakup and her sister was my roommate in the loft on Queen West. I was getting plenty of work, but it wasn't the happiest period of my life. I don't know what inspired me, but one morning - I remember it as a Sunday, for some reason - I carried the roses into my studio and began setting up my lights.

I wasn't too ambitious that first day with the roses, but I liked what I got when the film came back - a simple but attractive floral still life with a little magic touch provided by the way the water refracted in the vase. Over the next five weeks I would make regular trips to Harvest Fresh Farms, the grocery across the street from the loft, to pick up flowers, which I'd put take into the studio and shoot with my latest purchase - a Zenza Bronica SQ-a that I'd just bought used and which would become my main studio camera for the next decade.

Tulips, 1991

A week or so later tulips were in season, so I bought two or three bunches and crammed them into the vase. I set a soft light just above and moved the red seamless backdrop close to catch the spill of light. The results weren't nearly as attractive - the flowers were a bit of a mess - but I discovered that the cross-processed film colour-shifted just enough that true colour rendition was almost impossible.

I'd print several versions, shifting the background from a cool violet to a hot orange. I wanted to get a really nice floral shot, but while I was feeling my way there, I'd use these shoots as a kind of test bed for the possibilities of cross-processing, while testing out my new studio strobe kit on the way.

Daisies, 1991

My next subject was a bunch of daisies - a cheap bouquet that I stuck into the same vase as the roses, in a similar setup to the first shoot, a couple of weeks previous. I put a harder light over the flowers and experimented with different light levels on the red seamless.

I was chewing my way through the usual bunch of mostly undigested influences - Irving Penn, of course, but also Robert Mapplethorpe's floral still lifes, which I liked a lot, and Peter Savile's work on the cover of Technique, a recent New Order record. While racking my focus back and forth on the Bronica, I discovered that I liked the way the flowers looked through a thick blur. I'd become obsessed with thin apertures and pulled focus, and would return to it again and again over the years.

Lilies, 1991

The next flowers to come into season that spring were lilies, so I bought a big bunch and took them home to the loft. I set them up in front of a blue seamless and put a big softbox overhead, then moved my camera in close.

I was probably taking Polaroid tests while I worked - another new toy - and hoped that the film would come back looking as nice as the Polaroid print. It did, but true to form the cross-processing gave the photos a slight cyan/blue cast that pushed through in the shadows of the bright yellow flowers. Still, I didn't mind this much at all, and I rented some colour darkroom time later that spring to make big 30"x40" prints of my three favorite frames from this series - the biggest prints I ever made.

Tulips, 1991

Finally, with tulips still in season, I bought a bunch and put them in a tall, slim vase. I set up the darkroom for high key lighting with the white seamless and trained a single, focused but slightly diffused strobe head on the flowers. The result was the most Penn-like thing I shot that month, which is probably why it was my favorite. Years later I'd print one up for a show of still-life work I did in an uptown restaurant. It didn't sell, and has been hanging in our bedroom for years.

I remember this brief surge of inspiration as a refuge from my rather dismal personal life at the time. I also remember it for all the shoegaze music I was listening to - bands like Lush and Ride and Chapterhouse - and they provide a soundtrack in my mind, even today, when I revisit this work. I was trying to make something beautiful, I think, separate from the demands of paying work and as a consolation from an awkward living situation and the deep sense of hurt and rejection that infused everything around me.


No comments:

Post a Comment