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The Secret Life of Flowers

Photographer Barbara Bordnick turns her lens from fashion to flowers to reveal their "sensual, often erotic, landscape"

May 31, 2012

In the early 1970s, fashion photography was a man’s profession. Then Barbara Bordnick, with a background in fashion design, broke into that world, opening the door for other women. The New York photographer's work has appeared in such publications as Harper's Bazaar, Life, Vogue Paris and The New York Times.

In 2002, Bordnick turned her lens from fashion to a completely different kind of model: flowers. The result was Searchings: The Secret Landscapes of Flowers (Welcome Books), her first book of fine art photographs. Its success led to two more volumes with that title.

Seeing as how Mother's Day — and all of May for that matter — is a prime time for flowers, Bordnick shares some of her intimate yet striking images with Next Avenue, and talks to articles editor John Stark about how she captured them. 
What made you decide to photograph flowers?
It was accidental. I was supposed to do another shooting for a new Canon camera, but the model didn't show up — because I forgot to book her. Rather than not use the free time, I decided instead to photograph some flowers I had just picked up at the Union Square green market, and that were in a vase on my studio table. When I saw the first two flower photographs on my monitor, I was astonished. I realized I'd gone someplace I'd never been. Nor had anyone else. I was hooked.
You're an artist.  Aren't flowers a cliche?
Isn't beauty a cliche? Actually, at first, I didn't want to tell any of my photographer or artist friends that I was shooting flowers for that very reason. I thought they'd all think I was retiring — or dying! Everyone eventually shoots flowers. But this was about the landscape that I had discovered: this sensual, often erotic, landscape of line, color and form.
Your flowers are extremely intimate. How do you create that intimacy? What's your technique?
I don't have a technique per se that makes them that way. Rather, it's about how I see them. It feels no different from when I photograph nudes, or even fashion. It's about the sensual movement of form and color, and it's the sensual line and form that attracts me.
What are your favorite flowers to photograph?
Any flower that talks to me that day. Especially a flower that I've not photographed before. I'm always looking for something I haven't seen. There are no two flowers that are identical — just like people.
Are you drawn to a particular color of flower?
I think white flowers have the most mystery. That's why I did a third volume of all white flowers. They are so ethereal and mysterious — and of course have so much color in them.
When you became a fashion photographer, it was a man's field.  How did you break through?
By persistence and luck. It took me nine months to get someone to hire me as an assistant. There hadn't been a woman fashion photographer for a generation. It was a totally male world. It was the “Blow-Up” world, where all the boys wanted to photograph Verushka so they could sit on her like David Hemmings did in Antonioni’s film.
What drew you to fashion photography?
I saw fashion in a way that no fashion photographer did in that day. My vision was softer and perhaps a bit more feminine.
How is photographing beautiful flowers different from photographing beautiful models?
Just like models, flowers complain, wilt and can have attitude. But I can photograph flowers without a crew and can really zen out doing it. In some ways photographing a beautiful flower or a beautiful creature feels similiar. But there is a difference. When you successfully direct a crew — a hairdresser, makeup artist, stylist and model — you create a kind of magic. That is a fashion photograph, and that's hard to beat.
What photographers have influenced you?
Richard Avedon's photographs were the first I actual "saw" when I was a fashion student. My main influences were the Photo Secessionists, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, American fashion photographer Bob Richardson, and the deep black & white of Bill Brandt's English villages. There are many, many photographers today —  including my students —  who I can learn from. There is always something to learn.
At the end of your first Searchings book you have a photograph of a flower that you took on 9/11. Tell us about that.
That photograph, "September 11, 2001," is the only one in all the books that has a title. I purchased those white amaryllis to photograph on September 11, but of course no one did what they were supposed to do on that day. I teach classes at Parsons on 7th Avenue in New York. As I was walking to school, I saw, in front of me, the entire horror. Two days later I was about to discard the wilting flowers, but as I held them up in the glass vase, I saw a familiar vision:  it was of the first World Trade Center tower falling as the second was about to fall. I quickly set up to shoot it and knew it would be the last photograph in my first book.
Barbara Walters once asked Katharine Hepburn if she could be a tree, what kind would she be?  If you could be a flower, what would it be?
My recently deceased mother's favorite flower was a lily of the valley, so I'd like to be her favorite. And I'd like to be as flamboyant and outrageous as a peony. My favorite flower, however, is helleborus [Christmas rose], but I don't want to die so quickly.