A Bowing Acquaintance With Plants

…even a bowing acquaintance with flowers repays one generously for the effort expended in its achievement.
— Mrs. Willam Starr Dana, How to Know the Wild Flowers, 1893
Echinopsis terscheckii

Echinopsis terscheckii

Plants have intrigued me as a photographic subject since my earliest days as a photographer, when I would follow my grandfather along his woodland wildflower trail, camera in hand. He would stop and bow over a trillium, mayapple or lady slipper, sharing with me its Latin name and pointing out its unique characteristics. While the Latin was lost on me at the time, I began to see plants as having individual personalities and traits—the graceful curve of a stem, the defiant behavior of an errant blade of grass, the imprints left by unfurling leaves of an agave, the dancing petals of dogwood in a gentle breeze or the piercing sharpness of a cactus spine.
When photographing an individual plant, I like to move in closely. This allows me to simplify the composition and focus on what compels me. Unless color is the key characteristic I wish to highlight, I often prefer photographing plants in black and white. It allows us to see more clearly—often exposing characteristics we might otherwise overlook.

Consider the cactus: We all know that spines are commonly found on cacti, but have you noticed the differences in their shapes; the ways in which they are clustered; their density or sparseness; whether they are long or short, straight or curled; or why some cacti don’t have them at all? The spines are often what differentiate one species from another. It's easy to see that spines help protect the cactus from predators, but can you also begin to see that they offer some shade to the cactus (by their sheer numbers, if nothing else) and slow the air circulation around the succulent stems in order to reduce evaporation?

To photograph a plant this closely, you have to slow down. It’s not like a casual stroll through the garden and a quick click of the shutter. It requires stopping, moving in close, and taking time to really study a plant. For me, that’s when photography becomes a form of meditation—the opportunity to see more deeply, to be in the moment and to let everything else go.