By Richard Anthony Russo
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time…” Georgia O’Keeffe.
When the pandemic struck, I knew the months to come would be difficult. But as a writer, I was fortunate: I was used to working from my home. Still, with all the health precautions and concerns about social distancing, I found it difficult to concentrate. Usually, when I run into obstacles on one creative front, I “switch channels” and turn to photography until the ideas begin to flow — yet because we were sheltering in place, I couldn’t venture very far with my camera.
My usual work mixes slightly surreal street photography with dream imagery. The prospect of being limited to my immediate neighborhood did not seem promising, but that’s all I had. So I set out with my camera, curious about what I might discover, yet not expecting much.
What I found was … flowers! I could hardly imagine subject matter more different from my usual images, or more overworked. Everyone with a cell phone or camera takes pictures of flowers; Instagram and Flickr hold millions of them. Even as I resisted entering this new realm, I felt drawn to it; to my surprise, I wanted to photograph the plants and flowers. Over the years, I have learned to trust my instincts and see where a project leads. The challenge of finding some interesting and fresh way of approaching this material now intrigued me.
The key was to forget what I was looking at and focus on what I was seeing; not a “rose,” but a particular arrangement of shapes and colors. I moved in close and approached the plants from unexpected angles, and I stepped back, to capture the larger landscape in which the plants were flourishing. I tried to go beyond photography to achieve something more akin to painting.
Soon I started taking what I thought of as “gateway” images: openings in these clusters of plants and flowers that led to something beyond – usually a darker realm, but sometimes dazzling light. As I moved in closer to photograph, I encountered another realm where the cycles of life and death are part of nature. I began to stick my head in deeper amongst the leaves and blossoms and stems, trying to see them in a new way. To be with them in a new way. To be fully present in this new world. The resulting images began moving beyond representation toward abstract compositions of color and form.
The pandemic has brought unexpected gifts. As a photographer, I not only found a way to keep working during these months of confinement, I have developed a substantial new body of work. In the past two months, I’ve shot well over a hundred botanical images. Working with plants and flowers has deepened my belief that the key to photography is to let go of prior experience and concepts and really see what is in front of you. If you can do that, you can make something of even the most familiar subject matter. My visual vocabulary has expanded, and I am eager to see how this will inform my future work.
Most importantly, exploring the neighborhood with my camera has become a spiritual practice. Fully immersed in the seeing of the beauty around me, my mind quiets, all anxieties and concerns drop away, and the uncertainty of daily life loses its grip on me. Like all of us, this virus is simply a part of nature. This is what these images are about; the yearning to pass through those gateways, to move away from the pinched confines of the mind toward something deeper and more expansive. To be at one with nature. I return from these neighborhood forays comforted and recharged.
Most of these images were taken within a few blocks of my house. Then, one day, my wife wondered what I might make of our own backyard. I found much beauty there, not just in the blossoming plants, but in dead leaves hanging across the wooden fence, and the overgrown plants on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Things so close to home, we often take them for granted.
So much beauty everywhere! I had known it was there – I just had never really seen it.