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A photograph of a plant always contains a message.

–Gilles Clément (from the text)

If Clément’s statement is true, then the central message of Leendert Blok: Silent Beauties–Photographs from the 1920’s (Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2015) is, “We were there….”

The book examines the nascent color work of Blok (1895-1986), an early adopter of the Lumières’ Autochrome process, one of the first uses of color in photography—and the dominant process before the invention of color film. Mssr. Clément’s too-brief text and the ethereal photographs of Leendert Blok provide a fascinating glimpse of the intersection of the histories of photography and horticulture and evidence that, though unrelated, the two disciplines were advancing at the same time and grew up benefiting from each other.

It was serendipitous that color photography was developed at the same time that horticulturists began addressing market demand by developing varieties never seen in nature—large, colorful flowers resulting from plants being “manufactured” and controlled in careful breeding programs. At the same time the plant world was making plants with big, technicolor flowers the industry’s dominant paradigm, photography was venturing into the world of reproducing subjects IN color. For Blok it was a marriage made in heaven.

The link between the histories of photography and of horticulture runs deeper than Blok’s work. One of the very first books to feature color photography and color printing was, Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries, Their Practical Application. This twelve volume magnum opus is the most extensive publication of the renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849–1926). The set, published in 1914-1915 contains 1260 photographs from autochrome plates.

One hundred years later, this book is the first to feature Blok’s work. During his career, his main clients were nurseries and bulb producers who used his images as catalogue visuals and marketing pieces.

Clément assumes that Blok was aware of the work of Karl Blossfeldt, (see, Karl Blossfeldt: The Complete Published Work (Hans Christian Adam, Taschen: 2008)) a contemporary who blossomed into public consciousness in his sixties after decades of using his work as teaching aids. There is no indication that the two were acquainted. Or that either knew Burbank…though they may have known his work.

As opposed to Blossfeldt, who built his own cameras to photograph the minutiae of plants– leaves, tendrils, leaf scars, cross-sections, apical stems, fern croziers, but less frequently flowers—Blok’s photographs are almost exclusively of the blooms created by horticulture.

The book showcases plates made in the 1920’s and —the pre-film portion of Blok’s career. The plates gain a measure of their appeal from the process used to create them. They carry the patina of age and their color has held well. The autochrome process was technically demanding and required slow shutter speeds. Prints tend to be grainy, giving them what has been described as “a hazy, pointillist effect.” The result is a dream-like quality still popular today—as evidenced by dozens of smart phone apps with filters to emulate the same effect.

The text by Clément focuses on Blok’s subjects, the “Silent Beauties” of the title. Between it and the very short biography of Blok, there is relatively little mention made of career (which after all spanned a far longer period than that covered by the book) and technique. More on each subject would have been welcomed.

That Blok, like Blossfeldt, was not appreciated as an artist early on is understandable as his photography was done with commerce, rather than art, in mind. The rediscovery of his oeuvre and the publishing of this early portion of it exposes his efforts to the light of day and should ensure his spot in the history of photography—and add to the lore of man’s involvement with plants.

 

Hungry to put your photography skills to work? Craving a chance to make a difference in the world with your images? Ravenous for information on a niche field in the world of professional photography? Conservation Photography Handbook: How to Save the World One Photo at a Time (Boyd Norton, Amherst Media, Buffalo, NY, 2016, 126pp) could be the book for you.

One glance at the author and you’ll know that this ‘conservation photography’ is NOT about preserving old images pulled from dusty museum folders. For half a century Boyd Norton has been traipsing the far corners of the world photographing nature and the environment, publishing images everywhere, and winning awards.

No, this conservation photography is about saving wilderness and wildlife. The putative child of nature photography and documentary photography, conservation photography goes a step further. Not content with raising awareness, showcasing seldom-seen wonders and making great desktop wallpaper, conservation photography is a clarion call to action. It is nature photography with an agenda.

There are hundreds of books on nature photography, very few on world of documentary photography, and to my knowledge NO other books on ‘conservation photography.’ Yes, there are plenty of books put together to excite people to action on special places and distinct projects, but none on the discipline or process of this field of photography. Can you say “great expectations?”

 

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Lately I’ve been thinking of using my photography skills in a different way–in a documentary capacity to serve a larger purpose—to put myself at the service of a cause. I have a couple of projects in mind and was hungry for information on how the conservation photography game works.

Consequently, it was with a great thirst for deeper knowledge on the subject that I cracked the Conservation Photography Handbook. I had expectations. I wanted nuts and bolts; pearls of wisdom on the business of putting projects together, shepherding them to the attention of people who might be interested, figuring out funding, financing, and, execution—carrying them out and sharing them with the world. I wanted badly to love this book.

Unfortunately it left me disappointed. Since it’s about a specialty sub-field of photography, I expected meat on the plate. What I got was a tasty amuse-bouche.

Norton’s photography speaks for itself. This is not the first time around the block for this artist or these images—more than a few are iconic. But, there are more than a few. It seems odd that a photographer would complain about too many images, but the word “handbook” in the title keeps coming back and the space dedicated to photographs took away from additional text.

The text is where I had my biggest problem. The text is lightweight, far more suitable to an audience of amateur photographers than experienced photographers, who know their f-stops from their shutter speeds, and are researching a specialized field. It’s not until page 95 of 126 that Norton says, “So far I’ve covered some of the nuts and bolts of creating strong photographs. Now, let’s concentrate on the nuts and bolts of serious involvement in the conservation part.” I’m guessing that most readers are not coming to the table to learn to make photographs. Over two-thirds of the book is gone and now we’re finally getting to it?

Norton provides more anecdote than substance on the two projects he mentions, his work on Hells Canyon nearly 50 years ago, and his more current work on the Serengeti. He clearly expended an enormous amount of effort in this work. Detailed, start-to-finish case studies of these projects—and other examples–would have formed a great backbone for the book.

Interviews with five other conservation photographers were highlights, but tucked at the end and like the text, didn’t go far enough. Repeated questions led to redundancy. Case studies from these photographers could have supplemented Norton’s.

Mention is made of ethics, a very important consideration in documentary work of any kind. Establishment of a “Documentary Code of Ethics” is a hot topic in film and photographic circles. Here treatment of it is limited to brief discussions on avoiding wildlife mistreatment and the manipulation of photographs by adding or deleting elements in post-processing. The decision to create an image is multifaceted, with decisions made that are often instinctive and unarticulated. There is far more to consider in a discussion of ethics than what is presented here.

Agenda driven photography results from current or imminent threats–or the negative consequences of past actions. Because conservation photography involves the creation of images that move people to action on specific issues, many times the subject of a photograph will be unattractive—downright ugly. Making ugly things look bad is a goal (and not an inappropriate one, often ugliness can be beautiful). There is an inherent tension, however, between shooting what “is” and the outrage we seek to create in viewers. Making things look bad is one thing, making them look worse than they are is another. There is sometimes a fine line between what is true and how far you can take it in the service of your purpose. Both Norton and his interviewees address making bad look bad, but go no further. A deeper discussion of this would have been a fascinating subject.

Barely four pages are dedicated to working with conservation organizations or creating one of your own. THIS is the kind of information the title promised! Read this book if you’re new to photography and exploring. If you’re looking for a “handbook” to conservation photography, you may have to wait. Like most amuse-bouche, with Conservation Photography, you’re likely to be left wanting more.