Drawing on the rich and storied history of botanical art, Steve Harries render the familiar forms of flowers in an entirely new light
The ephemeral beauty of flowers has preoccupied artists for centuries. From vivid still lifes by the Dutch masters, to the visceral large-scale paintings of flora by Georgia O’Keeffe, the genre is abloom with different interpretations. One particularly compelling strand of this art form is scientific, rather than aesthetic, in motivation; for thousands of years flowers have been recorded in botanical journals for a purely didactic purpose. It is these traditional journals that photographer Steve Harries took as the starting point for his series, Studio Botanical. Rather than mimicking them, however, he chose to upend their disciplined realism to present what he describes as “a personal, controlled and often distorted interpretation of the flower”.
The result is an exotic cornucopia of botanical forms that bleed vivid colour and vibrate with movement. Like a bee drunk on nectar, the eye travels along undulating petals and thrumming stigma, gaining a hyperreal sense of the forms at hand. Studio Botanical evokes nature in its rawest sense – something that Harries attributes to “a slight rebellion against the control and predictability of man-made spaces”. Interiors are his more commonly chosen subject, which, he tells Utopian, made shooting the unpredictable forms of flowers an enticing challenge.
“There are elements such as geometry, sequence and form that you take for granted in fashion or architecture,”
The ambiguity of the botanical form thus became central to the photographic process, further enhanced by the volatile nature of darkroom printing, which “presented refreshing alternatives to embrace and elaborate on”.
The works are reminiscent of the botanical photography of artists such as Sheila Metzner and Robert Mapplethorpe, in that the subject here is elevated to the point of veneration. For Harries, each flower becomes an individual study. “My default instinct was always to view the subject in isolation, as an object constructed,” he notes. In this way, a single bud transforms into an objet d’art. The intense saturation of tone and chiaroscuro of their throbbing forms against stark backgrounds feel as though you are looking at portraits of flowers rather than still lifes. He points out the importance of the fact “that any distortion also remained descriptive”. So, in the same way that the painstaking details of traditional botanical journals stimulate a deeper aesthetic understanding of flowers, Harries’ botanical portraits induce an almost entirely sensory experience of them. And a rather divine experience at that.