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Exhibiting, Curating, Collaborating, Publishing, Learning and More: Talks at the RPS

          Image Copyright Pawan Joshi, of Photo Kathmandu I am also very much looking forward to introducing these speakers for the third se...

Thursday, 29 July 2021

The great pictures of Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway recovering from injuries at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, Italy, 1918.

Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

I really enjoyed watching Ken Burns' Hemingway series. It's like watching a man car crash from being a great and visionary writer (the short stories are coming from the library soon... but otherwise no I haven't) to a gaslighting bore of a man wallowing amidst the carcasses of his vomit strewn legend.

Ken Burns interview on Martha Gelhorn

'Yes. I think Martha Gellhorn threatened him fundamentally. His writing begins to decline. He sort of goes into his shell, he doesn’t want to go out. She wants to go out and cover the world, particularly the greatest cataclysm in human history. He’s not so sure, having been through the first world war and having done the Spanish civil war. And so I think he’s terrified of her, maybe emasculated. I think she needed her independence. As she said, she wanted her name back. She thought he could be a partner and he had pitiably no ability to be a partner.'

As he got older, he didn't take kindly to those more talented than him - he ended up flying to Europe to cover the Second World War as a journalist, leaving Gelhorn  (who was always going to go, who basically shamed him into going) to take a boat.

One of the most enjoyable features of the series was Ken Burns' use of still images. 

Here's what he said about these still images.

Your films are particularly celebrated for their use of archive photography. What is it about the still image that is rendered powerful in moving pictures?

'My father was an anthropologist and he was also an amateur still photographer. I wanted to become a film-maker and I ended up going to a college where all of my teachers were social documentary, still photographers. And so the still photograph is a kind of DNA of my work. I look at a photograph as if it is the arresting of an alive moment. So as I film it, I want to take that feature film-maker’s sensibility and each photograph is a master shot that has a long shot, a medium shot, a close-up, a tilt, a pan, a reveal detail. In the opening of The Civil War you tilt from an innocent boy’s face down to his waistband stuffed with two revolvers. That spoke a million words.'

So the still image becomes something different. It's lingered on, there is movement (on the screen at least) as different elements are highlighted. That creates a dynamism of reading where one lingers over the separate elements of face, gaze, gesture, body, environment, relationships. 

There's one image at the end where Hemingway has collapsed into his injury-raddled alcoholism and his eyes stare out, a shell of a man. It's an image that runs into the clip of him giving his stilted scripted delivery to a movie camera, the pain of his end rubbing raw on the screen.

It's basic montage, a way of bringing drama out of a still image of everyday life, of combining, repeating, and layering so that the still image stretches out into time. In the documentary everything is considered, and everything matters - and that extends to the still images, and these are then 'altered' through scale and movement in a very quiet kind of Tretyakov photomontage where the cutting and the scaling are gradual and slow and performed through movement of the photographs on the screen. These photographs are so full of content, so naturalistic, and so powerful, there is an elevated drama to them, a drama that is added by the connections made by the photographs' movements across the screen. Eyes, hands, gestures, bodies, emotions are connected through this movement and so these still images look like cinema - really good social realist cinema. 

They made me contrast them with staged  photographs where a similar thing happens, where everything is considered, everything matters, where connections are sought to be made between different elements. But somehow they never look like the images chosen in this kind of documentary - mostly because they are not. They definitively aren't that idea of the 'great photograph' that connects to the time when Hemingway was at his writing heights, and that we (or I) still have moments of romantic yearnings for. These staged images look like staged images that are trying to look like cinema in a way that comes from an idea of cinema that comes from an earlier staged photography.

It makes me wonder what a great picture is and how photographs loop across time and link into different visual and cultural histories and how we read that and intuitively understand it at a really fundamental level without necessarily being consciously aware of it. 

And the more traffic a particular loop receives, the more fatigued we get with a particular idea of what an image is or can be. It's not about being a great image anymore because that very idea is stuck in a distant past, it's about being interesting and engaging, and many other things I'm not quite sure of. But interesting, yes. And the images in Hemingway were interesting, so where am I? I'm not quite sure.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Anthony Luvera: "I don't think it's enough just to have good intentions."

I've been a bit slow with the blog to say the least, but more because I've been concerned with lots of evening teaching, talks, classes and so on - including talks with the RPS on the history and theory of photography. I'll be starting another one in September with the RPS, so if you are interested do watch out for updates.

One of these talks was on collaboration by Anthony Luvera. Collaboration is big in Anthony's practice, as is the idea of participation. What I really like about him is how everything posed as more of a question, as something to consider, as a thought - rather as some kind of commandment written in stone.  (Here's to the coming global backlash against the tyranny of Ibrahimical thinking. I'm keeping my fingers crossed)

That matters for people like me who like some distinctly uncollaborative work that relies on the grand spectacle of photography. I love the grand spectacle of photography, the visual statement that ties in to even grander biblical and archetypal narratives in which the individual is subsumed into some photographic Cecil B. de Mille epic of strain, effort, and suffering. That is at least some of the point of photography. 

But another point of photography is to be better at it, to slow down, step back and think about how it operates in history, in archives, in museum, in public consciousness. And it doesn't take much slowing down to get thinking. 

In his talk, Anthony pointed the way. It's important because it can make you tell better stories, it can make you go beneath the surface, and, most importantly, it can make you a better person. 

It can also make you bullshit-detect when people use the word collaborative for projects which really, really aren't. Oh they so aren't...

So there. The first question posed by Anthony was...

''What is collaboration?

Who is it for?

 -  The people taking part?

 -  The artist?

 -  The organisation commissioning the work?

Is the artist seducing the participant for the purpose of the work. 

Is the collaboration empowering, giving voice, giving confidence

What part do good intentions play?

Whose voice is being amplified ? How does the artist profit? How can the outcome be measured or described?

What is the intention of the artist? How does context affect understanding?"

That's what he asked. Then he went on to state... 

"I do not undertake the work to enrich the participants - though my work has been framed in that way by organisations.

It's not about what is in the image - it is about what happens to the image?

When work is disseminated publicly, outside the group, it must be seen as a representation of identity, not a link to reality. 

Good intentions can mask the inequalities between the artist and the participant. 

There is an unachievable ideal. That ideal is to put power into the hands of the powerless.

You cannot underestimate the importance of real feedback." 

 So there are some ideas to wrestle with as we try to justify the pictures we make. Or perhaps we don't need to wrestle with them, just consider them. They are not oppositional polarities. Very little is and perhaps that non-polarised consideration takes us to a more considered, constructive, happy place.

In his own work, Luvera looked at how historically the representation of lbgtq+ has been essentially negative and regularly portrayed through reductive stereotypes

His project, Not going shopping, looked at how people use photography, how they experience their identity and how that identity is represented, in particular how that representation is ignored in museums and archives. The question then becomes how can that representation be embedded in museums and archives, how can it become a part of broader visual memory banks. 

This project looked at the politics of pride, the politics of speaking out, the politics of song, the idea of  of identity and photographs in the photobooth - the idea of space and the closet like nature of the photobooth.

All of this linked to anthropological and identity formation in historical images - the exoticisation through photography and how that can be questioned and redirected. And ultimately the work got bought by the city  museum - so feeding back into early visits on how queer people were represented and not represented. And that is supremely neat tie back.

Queers read this pamphlet 


   Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about
the freedom to be public, to just be who we are.  It means
everyday fighting oppression; homophobia, racism, misogyny,
the bigotry of religious hypocrites and our own self-hatred.
(We have been carefully taught to hate ourselves.)  And now
of course it means fighting a virus as well, and all those
homo-haters who are using AIDS to wipe us off the face of
the earth.  Being queer means leading a different sort of


life.  It's not about the mainstream, profit-margins,
patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It's not about
executive directors, privilege and elitism.  It's about
being on the margins, defining ourselves; it's about gender-
fuck and secrets, what's beneath the belt and deep inside
the heart; it's about the night.  Being queer is "grass
roots" because we know that everyone of us, every body,
every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of
pleasure waiting to be explored.  Everyone of us is a world
of infinite possibility. We are an army because we have to
be.  We are an army because we are so powerful.  (We have so
much to fight for; we are the most precious of endangered
species.)  And we are an army of lovers because it is we who
know what love is.  Desire and lust, too.  We invented them.
We come out of the closet, face the rejection of society,
face firing squads, just to love each other! Every time we
fuck, we win.  We must fight for ourselves (no one else is
going to do it) and if in that process we bring greater
freedom to the world at large then great.  (We've given so
much to that world:  democracy, all the arts, the concepts
of love, philosophy and the soul, to name just a few gifts
from our ancient Greek Dykes, Fags.)  Let's make every space
a Lesbian and Gay space. Every street a part of our sexual
geography. A city of yearning and then total satisfaction.
A city and a country where we can be safe and free and more.
We must look at our lives and see what's best in them, see
what is queer and what is straight and let that straight
chaff fall away!  Remember there is so, so little time.  And
I want to be a lover of each and every one of you.  Next
year, we march naked.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

How to start a project by Nicholas Polli


I'm enjoying writing reviews of self-published books for Source Magazine. The latest set included Nicholas Polli's When Strawberries Grow on Trees, I Will Kiss U - which might just be my favourite lockdown projects. 

Anyway, it's got this great bit of text at the back that details how the project started.

‘One day a girl texted me. “Hey, how are you? What are you doing?”

What was I doing??? Could I ever text back? “Nothing. I feel like shit and I am lying naked on the bed while eating some pasta with tomato sauce, which stained the bed sheets too, but who cares… and right now I was simply here, doing nothing.”

No, that could not be the answer, and so I said. “Nothing much. I am taking some photographs for personal project…”

“Oh, cool. I want to see them then!”

Shit. At that point, I had to do it… I gathered some things, arranged them somehow, and took a picture. I put it on the computer and sent them to her.’

I kind of love that and the idea that things just happen by accident, that not everything is carefully calculated, scheduled, and timetabled. That sometimes, just sometimes, chaos rules, and something vibrant and funny and with soul can emerge from the well of isolation and loneliness and anxiety. 

Which means a thousand more people will be using this as a foundation for their own ill-thought out, half-assed narcissistic projects on absolutely nothing. Please don't. It works here because the self-obsession fits the occasion, indeed is determined by the occasion. 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Jamie Dormer-Durling: Mary Anning, Coprolites, and Social Media

[1.jpg] - Detail of Painting of Mary Anning, credited to ‘Mr Grey’, Library at Natural History Museum, London, Photographed 2015


You may have heard of Mary Anning through the film Ammonite (if you liked Dig you will like Ammonite. If you didn't...) that has just been released. She's on the new 50p piece in the UK as well.. Anning is the paleontologist who discovered many prehistoric creatures through her fossil hunting, who had her achievements stolen by the men who bought her fossils (she wasn't a rich woman). 

 and Snakestones is a photobook by Jamie Dormer-Durling that looks at the history of Anning, at her paleontology, at her life. I especially love the images of the marks made by her tools, a visual record of the traces left behind by her life. 

Pre-order the book here. 

When did you get interested in Mary Anning and why?


I first found out who she was in spring 2014 when I was at Lyme Regis for a day out. I was walking on the beach and saw a big group of people all looking at the floor which made me curious. I spoke to some of the people who told me they were on a fossil walk and pointed me towards the group leader.  I started asking a few questions and he mentioned Mary Anning - a name I hadn't heard before - and told me a little bit about her prolific fossil finding and the significance of some of her discoveries. He then also told me about her being written out of history and the lack of recognition that she got because she was a woman and very poor.


Prior to this I had been working very loosely with an idea which started when I was taking photographs in the museums in Bristol and Cardiff. I was interested in looking at the links between the creation, control and dissemination of knowledge through state and cultural institutions and the resulting narratives that give meaning to our lives. So this story immediately appealed. Initially I thought I could work this into that project, but quickly learnt it was too big and ultimately a different work.

Before I got to look at the letters, notebooks and correspondence in her own hand I looked at where else she turned up in other written histories. Some of these contained these wonderfully fantastical stories.  In a book by G Roberts about the history of Lyme Regis, written in 1823 when she was arguably at her most prolific, there is an account of her surviving a lightning strike as a baby.  


‘Mary was taken by her nurse, Aug 19, 1800, to the rack field, where some equestrians were to perform… The weather was intensely hot and sultry; the clouds seemed to indicate the approach of a thunder-storm… At about a quarter to five, P.M., a passing cloud discharged a heavy shower, which caused those assembled to effect a hasty retreat… [some] went home; but the less prudent sought shelter under cover of some lofty elms that stood in the field. A vivid discharge of the electric fluid shortly ensued, followed by the most awful clap of thunder that any present ever remembered to have heard.  After a momentary pause, a man gave the alarm, by pointing to a group that lay motionless under a tree.  All grown persons were dead: the infant, Mary Anning, upon being put into warm water, revived: she had sustained no injury... She had been a dull child before, but after this accident became lively and intelligent, and grew up so.’


What’s not to get excited about with stories like this!? There are others too, and initially this project was me chasing these mythologies around and trying to make sense of them photographically. That is until I started reading her notebooks and letters and realised that the real and far more important story was about her labour, her struggle and her determination to understand the world around her.



What are the key things about her work that interested you?


So many things. First of all the fossils, and having an excuse to be around these relics of deep time. Being able to handle some of these specimens was like making contact with another world and an utter privilege.

 I love that she was right about so many things that her education on the beach gave her, like the links between certain species and the realisation that ‘coprolites’ were fossilised faeces (she was mocked for that).


Oxford3 = ‘Detail of Ichthyosaurus communis, showing coprolites in the ribcage, collected 1835, Oxford University Museum of Natural History’


I was fascinated by the way that she described the things she found and the sales patois she developed when writing to the museums and collectors, and her taking on of the establishment that exploited her ‘I do so enjoy opposition amongst the big wigs’


But I think the key draw here was the unravelling of all of the injustices that she suffered in the face of her relentless hard work.


How much do you think the issues of class and gender that stopped her being fully recognised are still relevant today?

She learnt to look for fossils with her dad who used to find ‘curies’ to sell to tourists that visited the area. He was a religious dissenter and, it would seem, pretty politically driven, often involved in strikes and protest. In 1800 he was identified as one of the ringleaders of a mob which rioted about food shortages.


You only have to look at the queuing we still have at food banks, which are much like the charitable causes her family leant on, to know that not much has changed.


There is a visible difference in how poverty looks in this country today, as it is possible to be broke and reliant on food banks yet have a 50-inch plasma TV on the wall and an expensive mobile phone. These things are made possible by the illusion of credit which allows people with no income goods which they pay for at thousands of percent above the production cost and which ‘holds’ them in a permanent state of debt to the system that defines their class.


I know this, I have experienced it myself growing up.


This masks the reality of modern poverty, and is useful evidence for those that are ideologically opposed to social equality to point their fingers at to try and maintain the status quo.


I’d say that the wealth gap in the UK today is as great if not greater than it was in Mary Anning’s day, given the lack of access many have to the basics of life. Can you imagine the carnage if it weren’t for the NHS and access to free medicine?  It’d be a Boschian-nightmare, and the cogs are whirring on the dismantling of what remains of the benevolent state.


In terms of issues of class and gender being related specifically to this field, there is a bit of a legacy. I think that there is a great deal more gender equality within the scientific communities themselves, but the structures of society are still geared up to make clear definitions between the genders with things like career choices.


Whilst making this project I have worked with many scientists and curators in the various museums, but I have also worked with the contemporary fossil hunters, those doing what Mary Anning did.


One guy I’ve spent a couple of afternoons fossiling with, Paul Crossley, is kind of representative of the legacy of the problems Anning faced. He’s been working the beach for years, been fossil hunting since he was five and has made some remarkable discoveries – such as the first known iridescent coprolite from a squid and a new species of lace wing beetle – both are now in the collections of museums.


He told me that if you donate a new specimen to a museum, you can name it – but if you sell it to them, they also acquire the rights to naming.  This is almost set up to deny a recorded legacy to anyone that is reliant on the income that fossil hunting provides.


Paul’s story also echoes some of the opposition I’ve met when referring to Anning as a palaeontologist and scientific thinker, which still causes some debate.  I’m not sure I’ve met many people as knowledgeable in their field as Paul is in his – for example, he anticipated the existence of the iridescent coprolite he discovered, and then went and found the first one! If that’s not scientific thinking, I don’t know what is. Yet he is still coy about referring to himself as a palaeontologist because he hasn’t been through university and also works a ‘normal’ job.


There are many images of markings in your book? Why are these important?


I think for me it was a way into the story proper. When I started this project there were just a few signs of interest in her outside of the worlds of science. Many stories have appeared since, but they are largely biographical.  The physical marks she left us were interesting to me because they refer directly to her activity. The looking, the working the stone with her tools, the cleaning…


[5.jpg] - Detail of SM J.35189, Icthyosaurus platydon, collection date unknown, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge, Photographed 2017



These marks reveal. They reveal the specimens buried in mud and stone, but they also reveal the processes she went through in creating new knowledge which shapes and gives meaning to our lives.


Her letters and drawings feature heavily in the book too but as much as the content of these are significant, I was also interested in the way she wrote – both her use of language and the physical markings. She didn’t have a schooling, and this is reflected in the spelling and grammar, but the way that she describes, and her sales talk is fascinating, as is the often overly elaborate handwriting. One of the first photographs in the book is of the postage side of a letter to Charles Konig, one of the ‘big wigs’ at The British Museum. Her calligraphic hand on this letter is fascinating and I’m still not sure if she was trying to fit in or taking the piss. Either way I love her for it.


[6.jpg] - Detail of Letter from Mary Anning to Charles Konig, concerning the sale of a Pterodactyle , 1829, Natural History Museum Archives, London, Photographed 2018


It is all of these markings that bring us back to the thing that is most important; her labour and her thought.


Why do you think there is an upsurge in interest in her work now (with the film and 50p piece)?


I see her popping up all the time at the minute because there are many movements and ideas that her story fits with. But I think there is a danger perhaps of generalising and shoehorning her into too many contemporary narratives. She is a hero, and I don't think there's much getting around that. The things that she endured, the relentlessness of her labour ostensibly to put food on the table, and the dignified way she took on the establishment.


So many people in society are never recognised for their hard work and are still fighting the establishment. The 1% payrise for NHS workers for example, against the 40% for Cummings or the massive handouts to chums in business to spaff up the wall for a few facemasks and an app that doesn’t work. We need heroes, and she is one.


Then we have the Trump/Johnson/Putin/Xi/Bolsanaro/Kim posturing of the past decade, so we have an urgent need for strong women to give a bit of steer away from this hellish man-made disaster we are experiencing. The real problem is that the establishment concedes to these positive and progressive narratives through its PR machines to appear a certain way but continues to legislate and organise in favour of a traditional white patriarchy.


Anning has become a role model for young children now that she appears in the national curriculum, but I think we have to be careful about the motivations of the state here. Often movements or ideas that are seen as dangerous are just absorbed into the structures of society where they can do least damage. Jonny Rotten sells butter now, let’s not forget.  Her rebellious spirt, revealed in her writings, must prevail and we mustn’t let the curriculum soften her. She was tough, and I doubt if she would have sold out, so it would be a disservice to her legacy to do that for her.


You're doing a kickstarter but you're a reluctant social media person. How does that fit?


Well, I'm not sure but I'm hoping it will. I've always had a low-level anxiety around the idea of selling myself and trying to persuade people to be interested in my work. Social media is still a little alien to me. I mean, I get it and prior to the book I used it occasionally. But I couldn’t tell you how Instagram TV works. Struggle getting my head around ‘stories’…


I am slightly hamstrung when it comes to promoting my book as my problematic relationship with social media means I have no following, and no one beyond my students knows who I am.  So, I am very much dependent on other people showing an interest in it, sharing it and feeling it's interesting enough to buy or talk about.


I'm fully aware that this is part of the job and that if I don't yell out into the crowd and hope that people are interested that the alternative is just never being heard, but these anxieties went into overdrive when it came to trying to promote work about a person who was denied any recognition for far greater effort than I have made.


When I exhibited this as a work in progress three years ago at Lyme Regis Museum I struggled to even put my name on the exhibition. The museum is built on the site of Mary Anning's former home, so for me it had to be the first place that the work was shown.  After travelling around the country photographing the fossils in the museums in which they now sit there was something poetic about being able to bring them back to her home.


 However, I had a bit of a crisis when it came to putting my name on the wall.  She had risked her life on a daily basis going out and finding these things, spent months digging them out and cleaning them and preparing them for sale and was never recognised. Then along comes privileged 21st century lad who makes a few photographs and has the temerity to put his name on her bedroom wall! 


Of course, I have come to place now where I am comfortable with the work, and that it has a function and a purpose, and that my voice in amongst all the others has something worth saying.



Why should people buy your book?


My feeling is that we should be publishing accounts of hidden or unknown histories – even if Mary Anning’s story is now largely understood to have been incorrectly recorded first time around it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the foul play by the establishment.


Of course, any account that is made is just another positioned expression in amongst many others.


Francis Lee’s film ‘Ammonite’ which comes out later this week is going to be interesting. It is certainly the loudest shout about her name the world has ever heard, and it’s great that she is now being given the attention she deserves. 


Many people have a problem with the film, which essentially uses Mary Anning’s new-found fame as a vehicle to tell a period love story between two historical women. Lee said in an interview that there are many examples of queer history being straightened, and that he is just queering a history for which there is no permissible evidence of any heterosexual relationships.


There is a letter included in my book from Anning to Charlotte Murchison (her love interest in the film) which could be interpreted as revealing a little more than a friendship, and I’m sure that Francis Lee also read this and has taken a little licence with it.  At times perhaps I've taken a few liberties with the information presented to me in my determination to prove that she was a scientific thinker and not just a collector, but of course any work is as much about the conclusions arrived at by the author.


The film looks great and I’m looking forward to seeing it.  I’m delighted that Lee has used Anning to start different conversations around gender and sexuality.  Though I’m told that ‘Ammonite’ doesn’t really explore her science, nor celebrate her breakthrough moments and this is why you should buy my book!

Order the Book  Here: Mary Anning - Dragons and Snakestones

‘Detail of R.2003, Temnodontosaurus platydon, collected 1832, Natural History Museum, London’

It's bloody huge that one about the length of two cars… the things that look like finger prints are fossilised scales. Focused on these marks in nhm8 as she would have noticed them.    



DSCF2263 = Detail of R1034, Dimorphodon macronyx, Collected 1828, Natural History Museum, London, 


This is the first pterodactyl found in the UK. The only other one in the world at the time she discovered this was in Germany. The photograph bothers me as it’s the only digital image in the book and it feels different… The guy at NHM wouldn’t let me set the 5x4 up over the top of it, nor would he let me stand the fossil up, so had no choice but to make a digital pic. It shows some lovely marks set into the concrete though including what look like two arrows pointing at something. Perhaps this was for her reference. The guy that was helping me didn’t know.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

Gem Toes-Crichton: The Hidden Histories of Women in Botany


     Quinoa by Gem Toes-Crichton

I love Interstices, the handmade book Gem Toes-Crichton made on herbaria, illustration and the hidden histories of women in botany (the images in this post are all from this book. 

It's work where there is an interplay between the scientific, the artistic, the academic, and the photographic - and interplay which hints at the worlds which photography can inhabit in some way.  I photograph a lot of plants and gardens and this work takes me into  directions which even really beautiful exhibitions like the Botanical Mind, don't really go into)

You can read more about the work here, and Gem is speaking this Wednesday 24th March as part of RPS series of lectures I am introducing. Go here for more details. 


  • What is interesting about plants?

What isn’t? :) 

Plants are critical to maintaining life on earth, forming a fundamental part of our lives throughout history. Plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about plants acting as teachers, explaining that in some native languages the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us” which make a great deal of sense.

With respect to botanical art, writer and art historian Wilfred Blunt writes: “The greatest flower artists have been those who have found beauty in truth; who have understood plants scientifically, but who have yet seen and described them with the eye and hand of the artist.” 

During my masters I realised why I was so drawn to photographing plants. I was doing so in order to understand them better, which is also a fundamental part of accurate botanical illustration. It is extremely important to understand plant morphology and anatomy in order to interpret and produce accurate representations of each plant species. I soon realised that I wanted to understand them at more than a surface level.

I find plants endlessly fascinating on a number of levels, but I'm conscious that this isn’t a universal view. 

Plant Blindness is something I am particularly interested in and it's becoming more of an issue over time as this knowledge isn’t passed on or handed down as it once was. The term Plant Blindness was coined by botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler in 1998, and is broadly defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment, leading to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Plant blindness also comprises an “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.” 

This concept of Plant Blindness led to the creation of ‘Quarantine Herbarium’ - a collaborative and participatory botanical photography project led by me, William Arnold and John A. Blythe.

The project seeks to alleviate symptoms of Plant Blindness through a hyperlocal focus on flora while salving the monotony of lockdown through engagement with the accessible historical photo method of cyanotype sun-prints.

I think ultimately plants teach us about important lessons around the unpredictability of life. Plants adapt and survive, teaching us hope and resilience in the face of adversity. 

  • When did you get interested in women in botany and why?

I began working at the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford almost a decade ago, supporting research, teaching, communication and outreach activities. I still have vivid memories of my first tour of the Herbaria with Herbarium Manager, Serena Marner. I remember being introduced to the botanical illustrations of artist Rosemary Wise. They were like nothing I had seen before, and I was amazed to learn that she had illustrated over 14,000 species in her career spanning 55 years! 

I began my masters degree in photography at Falmouth University in January 2018. I’d already been working with plant scientists, photographing plants, events and outreach to communicate the research taking place which acted as an important starting point. I had just six months to design, produce and deliver my final major project, and was granted access to explore the collections within the Oxford University Herbaria where I work. 

The aim of the project was to research and explore botanical illustrations, specimens and objects, highlighting some of the key methods used to depict and record plants since the seventeenth century, focussing specifically on the important contributions made to date by women in the field of botany.

The decision to focus solely on the contributions of women was due in part influenced by the vast size of the collections, but also after reading a research paper entitled: “Fewer than three percent of land plant species named by women: Author gender over 260 years”. The paper discusses women's contributions to science and how this has developed over multiple generations.

  • Who are the contemporary practitioners of botanical illustration? How do they make their work?

This is a brilliant question, which I think would take too long to answer, but there is an excellent website which focuses on Botanical Art and Illustration which shares links to a number of contemporary practitioners from around the world with examples of their work (including Rosemary Wise): https://www.botanicalartandartists.com/artists.html

That said, I feel I should mention the digital botanical images created by Niki Simpson who creates composite images influenced by the long standing tradition of botanical art.

Simpson describes her intentions as: "Highly informative scientific images can convey complex botanical information to the viewer in a way that is easily accessible, regardless of language, age or level of interest. My underlying interest is in using the power of images to raise awareness of and communicate information about plants."

  • What are the key elements of illustration that photography might not have?

Another great question!

Rosemary Wise created a guide to drawing plants and botanical illustration which contains a quote I return to again and again, which is as follows: 

“The camera sees and records all, but in botanical illustration all is often too much. Selectivity is the name of the game.” 

There is of course the argument that the camera does not see anything at all, instead it is the role of the photographer to choose what to photograph and to show inside of the frame. Which reminds me of the following quote by botanist and curator Prof Stephen A. Harris:

“The fundamental factor in scientific quality of a botanical illustration is not the medium the artist chooses to use or the technology used for its representation, but the artist's understanding of plant morphology (Harris, S.A.)

Learning to draw or use a camera involves an understanding of some of the same fundamental concepts, such as careful observation, interpretation, composition, translation etc, but clearly they are separate mediums doing different things. 

There are of course botanic illustrators who approach their work in a photographic style, such as Marianne North, and there are photographers working in a very illustrative way, such as Niki Simpson.

I’d say visual literacy is key here, or to be more specific, botanical and scientific literacy. But I would certainly be interested to hear what others think about this question.

  • You work in a herbarium – first of all what is a herbarium, and how has having one as a workplace influenced your research and work?

Herbaria are, in essence, preserved plant collections. The OED definition is: “A collection of dried plants systematically arranged; a hortus siccus*. Also, a book or case contrived for keeping such a collection; the room or building in which it is kept.” 

*Hortus Siccus is “An arranged collection of dried plants; a herbarium.” In Latin it means ‘dry garden’.

I work in the Department of Plant Sciences, at the University of Oxford and the Oxford University Herbaria forms an important part of the department, with three principal collections:

  • Fielding-Druce Herbarium: worldwide collection, including all pre-1796 and British holdings. 

  • Daubeny Herbarium: former herbarium of the forestry department and particularly strong in African woody species. 

  • Xylarium: wood block and microscope slide collection.

Being surrounded by such talented scientists researching across biology is such a privilege. Their passion and drive for science and discovery is infectious, causing me to ask questions and want to learn more. This teamed with access to the Herbaria collections which comprise of circa one million specimens has only heightened my curiosity. 

In science it is widely accepted that experiments can and do fail, but that this is an integral part of the process. I think this way of thinking (and working) has had a huge influence on me in terms of making work. I’d go as far as saying that the process of making work is as important as the final result to me.

  • Your artist’s book, Interstices: Hidden Histories of Women in Botany, is a supremely physical thing. What role do papers and the material play in its construction? And how did you decide on and source the materials used in the book? 

Spending time in the Herbaria with the curator caused me to question everything. I began by interviewing him, discussing my interests and trying to define my research question and ultimately the work I made at that time. Through examining the collections I became fascinated not only with the objects, but also the everyday materials and ephemera used to catalogue and preserve them.

I wanted to understand why and how certain materials were being used and reflect and translate this understanding through the construction and sequencing within the book. Almost every part of the book has been made using herbarium materials and methods used for preservation. (Although I imagine that conservators would not approve of mounted specimens being sewn into a book as this definitely doesn’t align with the correct procedures for careful handling of objects and their preservation!)

I particularly enjoyed learning about the methods used in making dried plant specimens and creating folded plant fragment and dissection packets used to secure loose plant matter and seeds. (Much to the amusement of herbaria staff!) 

I became increasingly interested in materiality, spending the day at the London Centre for Book Arts learning to construct and sew an exposed spine bound book to present the project. I decided to harness the herbarium materials as a method of sharing my experience with the viewer. I wanted to emulate the experience of working in an herbarium, handling plant specimens, photographs, archival collections, books and other objects.

  • There is a sensory quality to your work. What senses are invoked and is this something that comes from botany, from illustrators, or from the archival?

Thank you for saying that. This is a tricky question for me to answer properly, but I would say that I find the botany, illustration and the archival all to be distinctly sensory subjects. When entering a Herbarium for the first time I was struck by the heady smell. It’s like a mixture of old books, wood cabinets and plant preservation chemicals, which all feeds into the experience of physically being there. I really want whoever views my book to get a sense of that, which is another reason I decided to show the book and prints within the Oxford University Herbaria itself. I wanted to share what I had experienced during my time working with the collections.

  • How does the archival influence your work?

Spending time in archival collections is fascinating, but it is also extremely time consuming and can be difficult in terms of locating, handling and translation. But it is also rewarding, providing insights into the past and opening up conversations about the present and the future. 

For me, exploring the historical collections allowed me to work with a range of sources, including;  plant specimens, letters, telegraphs, books, illustrations and paintings. Engaging with such a wide range of materials and objects opened up a number of discussions and provided insight into the lives, work, challenges and accomplishments of a range of women in botany.

This period of time spent undertaking practical research in the archives clearly had an impact on the work I created. It also heavily influenced my approach to image making, book layouts and sequencing.

  • You cut across the botanical, the artistic, the photographic, the historical, and the handmade artist’s book. How do you balance these different elements?

In this instance I was highly influenced by what I had seen and experienced, so wanted to combine my learning across the history of photography, the archives and botanical art and science. (It wasn’t easy!)

The aim was for the book to be a very physical and tactile representation of what I had found interesting as I wanted to share that experience with others. In hindsight though, I wonder whether a scaled back version would perhaps allow me to bring this work to a wider audience.

  • This is a uniquely made book – are there any plans for either a small handmade edition, or a trade edition?

This is a difficult question to answer, but never say never! The book can’t easily be replicated due to the unique unfixed prints and historical materials used to construct it. However, a scaled back or limited version is possible, and is something I have been exploring.

  • A lot of people work with flora in photography. How can one make interesting work with photography in an area that has been and is so photographed?

I suspect this depends on what is considered to be interesting. I tend to find the most interesting work tends to be underpinned by research and made through experimentation, but of course that's all subjective and personal.

I think we often try purely to seek out the new or novel, and that can be difficult to do with flora (and with photography more broadly). My practice certainly shifted when I began to collaborate with others, and in particular, with scientists. Interdisciplinary collaborations caused important shifts in my perspective, causing me to ask new questions and look at subjects in different ways which in turn changed my ways of working.