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Source Photographic Review - Back Issue Archive - Issue 62 Spring 2010 - Feature Page - Peripatetic  - Feature Article by Ray McKenzie.

by Ray McKenzie

Source - Issue 62 - Spring - 2010 - Click for Contents

Issue 62 Spring 2010
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View photographs from: Peripatetic ▸

The immediate impression made by the eight works that comprise Peripatetic is of their striking elegance as images together with a poignant sense of the care with which their contents have been arranged for display. And this is just as it should be. Flowers, after all, are among those privileged objects that have been designated by our culture as not merely beautiful but inherently so,generating entire traditions of visual and literary representation that seek to explain why such fragile and physically vulnerable objects have so powerful a hold on our minds.

These traditions go back a long way and take many different forms. In the West, the decorative potential of plant forms was exploited right from the start, achieving its most resolved manifestation in the stylised runs of acanthus and honeysuckle used by the Greeks on their ceramic ware, textiles and buildings. Under cover of the Biblical assertion that not even ‘Solomon in all his glory’ could match the beauty of a humble lily, the artists of the Middle Ages were rather less selective in their celebration of the wonders of the natural world, filling the margins of their psalters with an array of plant forms almost psychedelic in its vividness and embracing every botanical specimen under the sun.

By the time the European convention of visual representation had properly settled down, the painting of flowers had become a genre in its own right, with the Little Dutch Masters of the seventeenth century developing a virtuosity of technique that is surpassed only by the aesthetic splendour of the objects it was devised to represent. But it was really during the Victorian era that the fixation on botanical life grew into a full-blown ‘cult of the flower’. Analysed and codified by Owen Jones in his Grammar of Ornament, flowers were adapted to provide visual enrichment to just about any flat surface a domestic interior had to offer – walls, carpets,curtains, cushions, crockery and furniture, as well as the clothes worn by the female occupants into whose charge such ‘decorative’ matters were mostly entrusted. Even the covers of Victorian books were adorned with them, and it was not uncommon to find between their pages the dried remnants of a real flower, the life pressed out of it to form a two-dimensional simulacrum of its original growing self.Summer Walk, found photographSummer Walk, found photograph

But it was also at this time that another important player, photography, appeared on the scene, and this would change forever the way flowers were represented. Fox Talbot led the way,exploiting the lace-like flatness of the common fern to demonstrate the efficacy of his ‘photogenic drawing’, the results of which were so memorable that similar forms of ‘cameraless photography’, such as the cyanotype, continued to be used long after the more familiar lens-based version of the process was brought to perfection.But for mainstream photographers too, flowers were to remain a source of endless fascination,producing results ranging from Roger Fenton’s burgeoning, studio-lit floral compositions to the balletically posed single tulips of Robert Mapplethorpe.

All this has taken us a long way from the work of Rita Soromenho, but given that the project under consideration is called Peripatetic, such a digression is perhaps forgivable. The truth is that all of these widely different ways of understanding the cultural meaning of flowers are implicit in this complex, sophisticated and subtly resonant body of work. The artist herself acknowledges her own indebtedness to the work of the Little Dutch Masters and the cyanotypes of the Victorian photographer Anna Atkins, as well as her interest in the role of flower imagery in the development of the ‘feminine imagination’, all of which places her work firmly within the tradition sketched here. But there are also several aspects of it that are new to the artistic treatment of flowers and that suggest a more subversive reading of that tradition. For one thing the series is the outcome of a journey – not a conventional nature ramble, but a Situationist dérive, in which all the unpredictable possibilities that arise from an engagement with the psycho-geography of urban space come into play. The result is an improvised narrative, each image embodying a small epiphany in a connected chain of revelations. More importantly, by the nature of the spaces that are encompassed by the journey –mostly tracts of urban wasteland – the plants gathered en route tend to be rather different from those conventionally celebrated in the art of the flower. There are no lilies here, nor roses nor orchids, but thistles, cow parsley, pussy willow,dock and dandelion – plants, in other words, that belong to that abhorred botanical under-class known as weeds, and that gardeners define as interlopers that are growing ‘in the wrong place’.

Everything in the history of flower art tells us that a nosegay composed of thistles and dandelions should be perceived as a parody - a grotesque inversion of the cultural and aesthetic meaning of flowers. This is not the case here. On the contrary, these plants are now very definitely in the right place. Seen with the intensity of the celebrated seed pods of Karl Blossfeldt, but without the contrived magnification, these flowers are like metaphors for poetic states that have yet to be identified; gathered together they form bouquets proffered from some mysterious zone beyond the threshold of everyday experience.

At the heart of Soromenho’s practice lies a belief in the power of chance, and like all artists who truly submit themselves to the laws of the aleatoric, she reaps the rewards in time. The found photograph reproduced here as Summer Walk might have been placed in her path by some benign acolyte of the nymph Chloris in recognition of her services to the floral realm.Here is another nature ramble underway – a line of Edwardian hikers snaking ahead of a bespectacled gent staring at the camera like some crazed Fitzcarraldo, in his hand a bunch of flowers that look as if they have been snatched from the photoscanner on which the images of Peripatetic were made. As with all the best amateur photographs it is technically flawed, so that the top right corner has bleached out in a haze of lens flare. It is here the ramblers are headed, into the strange, numinous other world from which the ravishingly lovely bouquets of Peripatetic have surely been sent.

Other articles by Ray McKenzie:

Other articles mentioning Rita Soromenho:

Other articles mentioning Roger Fenton:

Other articles mentioning Henry Fox Talbot:

Other articles on photography from the 'Still Life' category ▸