Photographing flowers with stories to tell
Photography is a powerful medium for storytelling. I have always been captivated by the stories street photographers capture in that single decisive moment they release the shutter. Candid emotions and expressions are captured to tell a story, framed by the environment, mood, light and shadows in which they are photographed. But how can I tell stories in my nature photography, particularly in my genre of flower photography? Isn’t it simply about capturing a beautiful part of nature?
Yes, I’ll admit that most often my goal in sharing an image is to simply draw your eye to a beautiful detail — a pattern, a texture, a playful curl of a petal — and sometimes it’s just about sharing a drop dead gorgeous example of what nature has so miraculously given us. In this complicated and messy world we live in sometimes capturing an image of pure zen-like beauty is all I need to remind me of what is good, peaceful and beautiful in the world.
As I have developed as a nature photographer, however, I have began to look for and see stories or interactions in the subjects I photograph. This tendency to see or project human characteristics in animals, plants or other objects is known as personification or anthropomorphism and it has been around since prehistory, the beginning of mythology and early religion. It is prevalent in literature and in the cartoons we all grew up with. We attribute human qualities and emotions to objects such as trees, flowers, to the weather, to animals and the pets we love. It is an effort to make the unfamiliar in nature more familiar and, in some cases, to revere and create a soulful bond with something we love.
Perhaps it is simply human nature that prompts me to see stories in flowers or perhaps it is my background as an art therapist that further encourages it. I’m trained to do that, after all — to read the underlying emotional message people present in their art. It would come naturally for me to see an underlying story in my own images and then to ponder what drew me to that story. Or perhaps it’s just a lively imagination and one too many Disney movies in my childhood (cue the dancing flowers in Fantasia or Alice in Wonderland).
Learning to see stories in images is one reason I love to teach what I call “the art of seeing” in my presentations about flower photography. Learning to see sounds simple but it requires slowing down, contemplating your subjects and training your eye to look for subjects with character, personality and stories to tell. I spend a lot of time looking carefully, not just glancing, all in an effort to find interesting subjects. The stories that present themselves, no matter how simple, add impact and emotion to an image, making viewers stop and look a little longer. Sometimes it’s as simple as a curl of the petal that’s gives me the feeling the flower is dancing or twirling in the summer sun.
I’m a firm believer in giving yourself projects to help you learn and grow. Several years ago, I challenged myself to do a 365 project, photographing and posting images daily for a full year. It sounded like a fun challenge, but little did I know at the time that it would lead to the most significant leap in my ability to see the details of nature more clearly. Because macro photography is my greatest love, I limited the scope of my project to photographing the patterns and textures of nature up-close. I began to be more purposeful in my seeing, to see things I had totally missed before in an effort to find interesting subjects to photograph each day for a year.
As the first frost came in the late fall and all the flowers faded and drooped, I panicked, thinking, “how in the world am I going to find enough subjects to photograph until spring arrives again?” By taking more time to look I began to see the beauty in the most unexpected of places, in this case in a windflower that was having its last dance as winter approached. The windflower felt like an old woman wrapping her fur stole around her neck as she took her last graceful dance. I saw my grandmother in that flower. There is beauty and grace in aging, and in dying flowers.
We all have different ways of seeing the world, different emotional make-ups and different histories, therefore, we may each see a completely different story in an image.That’s good, that’s what makes art exciting. I took this tulip image at the Holland Tulip Festival this past spring and, for me, I saw a tension in the way the petal was hanging by a thread, like that exciting but tense moment when you pull that loose tooth as a child. A friend of mine saw a totally different story in this image. She saw a man offering his hand to dance, like Rhett Butler to Scarlet O’Hara. It made perfect sense given my friend’s love of dancing, and, yes, I see that, too.
This rose feels as if she had secrets within, secrets to tell. I immediately saw an image of a woman holding her hand close to her lips as if to whisper a secret to a friend.
This image elicited an immediate feeling for me — the tenderness of a young child reaching for her mother’s face to stroke it, something one of my children did each time she sat in my lap as a baby. My history and emotions may lead me to one story while yours may be completely different.
When you are photographing nature, stop and look, REALLY look. Sometimes it will lead you to a treasure, a memory, a special feeling. Look carefully for those interesting and unusual details that elicit stories and emotions. Those images will become your favorite and they will no doubt elicit a stronger reaction in others. Creating impact in your work will help set it apart from the crowd.
Interested in creating your own flower story with Anne? Sign up for the Out of New York Conference, Oct. 14-15, 2016. Anne will be teaching her class, “Flower Photography: The Art of Seeing and Capturing the Beauty of Flowers.” She’ll also be holding a macro shoot-out with fellow macro photographer Mike Moats. Register now at outofnewyork.com!