A GLAMOUR AND A MYSTERY
William Ewing, July 2021
Fairies, for those who have seen them – and apparently many have over the centuries, judging by the number of firsthand accounts – appear to sensitive souls as tiny ghostly creatures, armed with magical powers, and not always for the good of any human beings with whom they might come into contact. Truly, how can anyone NOT believe? Fairies, being happiest flitting about in the air, remind us of the fragility of our own bodily solidity, weighed down by gravity and, by implication, with the cares of the world. However, much like flying saucers, fairies have seldom been caught on film. Still, a century ago no less an eminence than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, fervently believed he held just such photographs in his hand, hard proof of their existence! They would come to be known far and wide as the Cottingley Fairies. It was only several years after his death that the then child-photographer Elsie Wright admitted to the pictures being fakes – or, let us use the kinder word, given childhood innocence, FABRICATIONS. Elsie had been inspired by an illustrated poetry book, redrawn the fairy figures on cardboard, cut them out, and fastened them with hatpins to bushes before taking the pictures – all of which was done skillfully enough to fool several so-called experts. Of course, when we want to believe, we tend to dismiss such prosaic explanations; like Conan Doyle, most of us NEED fairies.
If we need fairies, we need flowers, too. Obviously, this need is first and foremost material: they provide food, cosmetics, perfumes, medicines, insecticides, dyes, and fabrics, and are especially valued as symbolic receptacles. Real flowers or their representations are worn on the body and adorn our sheets and towels, dresses and scarves, curtains and carpets. We find them everywhere in the decorative and applied arts, in furniture, architecture, and advertising. And, of course, they are fundamental to much of our fine arts. Some scholars believe that flowers are so central to art because we have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with them. They may even be our masters; after all, they have been around for more than one hundred million years, whereas we’ve only been around for a few hundred thousand. Could it be they are using us, as they use the birds and the bees?
Flowers are crucial for our symbolic lives. Flowers may be employed to send messages of love, friendship, solace, and respect. They are said to represent fragility, beauty, purity, delicacy, transience, brevity – even life itself. Small wonder then, that fairies are often personified as flowers. Mary Barker’s celebrated FLOWER FAIRIES books of the 1920s remain best sellers to this day, proof of this tenacious connection. So Kathrin Linkersdorff’s own version of FAIRIES fits into a deep and fertile cultural groove.
Flowers are one of photography’s enduring subjects. The first photographs ever made were of flowers – indeed, William Henry Fox Talbot’s floral imagery even predates the official date of the medium’s invention, 1839. Sir John Herschel even experimented with the juices extracted from flowers as an alternative to silver salts and baptized the results PHYTOTYPES (PHYTO-, meaning »plant«). Colleagues proposed the word ANTHOTYPES (ANTHO-, meaning »flower«), though the process was too slow, and was eventually abandoned. Also, while the colors were striking, they did not correspond to the reality (for example, a crimson poppy came out slate blue). Nevertheless, in honor of Kathrin Linkersdorff’s own original search for a fresh vision of an age-old passion, I propose reclassifying her eloquent studies as PHYTOTYPES.
The first woman photographer, Anna Atkins, also photographed flowers extensively. Excited by her earliest results, Atkins wrote to a friend: »I have lately taken in hand a rather lengthy performance … .« That word, PERFORMANCE, is unusual–today we’d most likely say project, but it struck me as pertinent to Linkersdorff’s work, though I am thinking of the flowers themselves as the performers, rather than the photographer – though why
not both, observer and observed? I can’t help thinking of the five parts of her FAIRIES study as acts of a floral ballet, a photographic »Waltz of the Flowers.«
In both Talbot’s and Atkins cases, these were CAMERA-LESS images, made by simply laying specimens on photosensitive paper, but photographers quickly took to the use of cameras and a new field was born. However, photography did not simply show up one day, with its superior rendering technology, and shove the arts of painting, watercolor, and drawing aside; the first photographs were crude by comparison with the established media, not
to mention lacking in color, and it would take them another seventy years to successfully compete. Such was the hostility of the botanists to photography that as late as 1892 the influential PHOTOGRAPHIC NEWS could write, »A photograph of a flower in the text-books is as rare as that of a human face is common.« Nevertheless, within the small, dynamic world of serious amateur photography, at the same time, we find real excitement about possibilities. The same journal noted, »At this season of the year the artistic photographer cannot fail to be attracted by the large variety of flowers, many of which are exceedingly suitable, both in shape and colour, to form charming subjects for photographic treatment.«
Much nineteenth-century floral photography mimicked the traditional media, but by the 1920s, photography had found its own terrain. Black-and-white was no longer seen as
a deficiency but as a power particular to photography, to be celebrated as such. In the hands of Edward Steichen, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham, Ernst Fuhrmann, Edward Weston, and others, flowers bloomed as a genre.
Today the photography of flowers is practiced universally. Some photographers dedicate their practice to it, some take on flowers for a one-time project, others photograph them haphazardly, grasping the opportunity when they encounter one. For the sake of simplicity, one might say there are two essential ways photographers approach flowers: as living in nature in their well-rooted state or as cut from their roots and henceforth slowly expiring in the studio. Fascinated with that process of expiry, Kathrin Linkersdorff has made a specialty of it.
Is it possible to look at this photographer’s FAIRIES without a rain of associations falling upon them? What fascinates me is the undulating sense of a slow-motion ballet. I am reminded of those films of astonishing deep-sea creatures, or even jellyfish. I have the sense that if I put down the book and pick it up later, the pictures will not be the same. In 1920 Doyle wrote of the Cottingley Fairies, »The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth-century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life.« Kathrin Linkersdorff’s FAIRIES, appearing one hundred years later, might well have satisfied Doyle’s yearning.
William Ewing is a curator of photography, an author of numerous books and articles, and was a museum director for many years. His exhibitions have been seen in hundreds of museums worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art and International Center of Photography, New York; the Centre Pompidou and Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; the Saatchi, Hayward, and Serpentine Galleries, London; the National Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea; the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia; the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, Marseille; MIT Museum, Boston; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; the Kunsthalle Zurich and Museum of Fine Arts of Italian Switzerland, Lugano; and the Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo. His books have been published in more than fifteen languages. He is an Officer of the French Order of the Arts and the Letters, and recipient of the Award for Outstanding Service to Photography from the Royal Photographic Society. His most recent exhibition, CIVILIZATION: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW, is currently traveling on all continents, and his current project, coauthored with Danaé Panchaud, is a sweeping survey of twenty-first-century photography of flowers.