Ron Van Dongen
Master Photographers on Their Art.
Growing plants and flowers has always been part of my life, as long as I can remember. I must have been five or six, sowing my first batch of some simple annual; I remember looking each day at the little pots for the sprouts coming up – and I still do that.
I was interested in flora and fauna and biology in general. I was always somehow involved in the more visual aspects of the discipline, though. At college I spent more time in the greenhouse than writing papers. I was involved in the active processes more than the intellectual. I happened to take a photography class in college and this opened my eyes; taking photographs and printing pictures was something I realized I enjoyed doing. At that time my interests in plants and in photography were not connected at all.
One of my professors explained how you do a body of work, where the first and last images of a group hold the interest. He said you should look in your back yard and come up with something that was dear to your heart, close to home. It sounds very logical. I wanted to be a portrait photographer at the time, all the big lighting and the rest, but I wasn’t that good at it. So I took his advice and literally went into my back yard. I started to find my subject matter, my “models” were right there, right at home. It opened the opportunities that have shaped my work since.
We overlook a lot of the details in our lives, and especially in nature we take things for granted. We don’t realize what it takes to cultivate things or live together with other species. I have learned from an early age the excitement of looking closer, watching and respecting, for what is going on around us. It takes time and discipline, but I still do the same thing: look at the small things more than the big things. When I go to the nursery, I tend to select plants for different qualities than other people.
My first black and white still lifes were influenced by romantic images from the golden age. I wanted opulent textures, dramatic lighting, all to make classic images. It was rewarding and I was imitating things I admired – Vermeer and Rembrandt portraits, for example. I then took this into the first plant images. Plants that were complicated and with lots of information tended to be the ones I put in the images.
From there on I started to develop my own preferences. I started to use less texture, less complication, and it became more stark and graphic. I went from high contrast to more subtle dark or light images, with tonal values in the mid-range of the greys.
I was encouraged by clients to do things in colour, but was concerned I was losing the original objectives. But then I realized I could transfer my approach and discovered more possibilities. I still took limited information – but never to the point of abstraction – while intensifying a feeling of what the plant was all about.
Choosing the colour of the backdrops, in correspondence with one of the colours in the plant – this is a key. The way I do that is that I follow the development of the plant closely. Most of the plants I shoot are from my own garden, and I see the changing colours of the leaves or the blooms; and when I feel the time is right to photograph them, I will cut a plant, or bring it into the studio in a pot, and I will choose one of the colours in the plant. I will go to the store and get that colour and then paint a backdrop on plywood.
I will only use natural light when I photograph – that is very important. I have a set of north-facing windows and a set of east-facing windows. I can put a table in between them so that the light falls at around forty-five degrees from both sides, and I can easily manipulate this light depending on the weather and what I want. If I want no reflection, I will make it very low and even; for a bit more drama, I will allow more. The unpredictability of the natural light is a thing I respond to as one of the beautiful things in photography. I could resort to studio lighting, but I don’t feel I get the quality.
Spring flowers tend to have the briefest life. With tulips I really have to be prepared: I will bring one in and know that within five minutes of bringing it into a warmer temperature it will open up. The petals will grow during the exposure. The tulips can visibly move in front of your eyes, unfold while you are taking the photograph.
The white on white and the black on black images are a huge challenge. You need a lack of light rather than a positive force of light. Any extra light creates unwanted shadow or highlights. With white on white, you want it to be like a drawing. With the black on blacks I have put a flower down inside a basket to reduce the light and then gave it a long exposure. It is a lot of trial and error but also very rewarding.
I still use film – Fujichrome Provia 4x5. If something works, I stick with it. I have it developed and do the printing on watercolour paper. It gives the matt feel that I get when I print black and white.
I have been able to continue photographing just plants because there was a change in my life where I was able to create a new environment, my garden. I need that change to stay focused and motivated to continue photographing botanicals. Because in some ways I also feel that I have “done travelling”; I don’t particularly want to go around the world to catch things when I enjoy staying home and working on the garden. But I will need to think what I can do now to develop as most of what we grow is outside. It is a mild climate here, but there are limits on what species you can grow. The time is right for a new change, but I have not made decisions.
People read things into the images – symbolism – but it’s not where I am coming from. There are the obvious associations, familiar feelings that are held for some plants, and people respond in a certain way. I have made still lifes in the past in honour of somebody who got married, or passed away, and I would choose that carefully, but not as a highly symbolic image. I don’t think that way with the flowers; the flowers in the images are what they are. This might be the scientific part of my personality coming back.