The Foreign Beauty of Nature at Mockingbird Paperie
May 24, 2017
I recently came across a book of work by the German photographer Stefan Hunstein, which included awe-evoking portraits of Arctic landscape. At the end of the book was a manifesto the artist wrote, perhaps functioning as his artist statement, that seemed almost at odds with the work, or more specifically with its medium.
“The reality which photography proclaims in constantly renewing variations is a lie,” Hunstein began. “The photo strips the objects of their own language: it declares triumphantly what they are. Photography reproduces the world only in its appearance; it does not recognize things; it neither looks behind them nor between them, only at them…The lens is not objective.”
Contrary to the age-old debate arguing that photography is a mechanical process depleting artists of their personal touch or intent (and therefore concluding that photography is not art due to its propensity for capturing real life images directly with light rather than using other media), Hunstein proposes just opposite. Photographs, it seems, are not just copies of life, but saturated with imposed meaning, context, and individual perspective. In this day and age, particularly in a time where advertisements with connoted meanings pervade such a large portion of our everyday existence, this sort of statement is nothing new. Of course photography can be art, and of course as an art writer in particular I of anyone might preach the notion that photography and other artworks carry depth far beyond their surface. What’s interesting about Hunstein’s statement, however, is its undertones of reproach. To him it seems, a photograph is never what it says it is, is never the objects it claims to depict. Photographs instead are fictitious, in his words: lies. But although this falsity may seem in direct contrast to the initial intent behind photography’s invention, this does not mean it is wholly without its benefits.
On view in Mockingbird Paperie downtown this month is Something New, a selection of still-life photographs by local artist Susan C. Larkin that use flowers in particular as muses for work. Close up and focused on textures, colors, and forms, the show could be viewed either shallowly (taken as is: beautiful and joyous) or more intensely (reveling in its detail and surprisingly dramatic effect). Araneus diadematus: Cross Orb Weaver studies a spider on its web. The photo is in black and white, juxtaposing the light strands of the web with the stark blackness behind it. The spider is tense, waiting. It’s so close up that each tiny hair on its body is visible, intensified by light. Its form is thus dissected and reassembled anew. It is beautiful in a way, haunting in a way.
Canna indica: Indian Shot is a similar situation: a black and white photographic close-up of the plant that provides a new perspective. Drained of its usual color, what’s left is the dry veins of its pods snapping open, the crinkles that constitute their shape. While the color photographs in the show, such as the drooping elegance of Fuchsia and the softly curved petals and blazing orange center of Magnolia grandiflora, could easily be called beautiful thanks to their intense hues and familiarity, Canna indica is a different case, a different kind of beauty. Taking away color allows a new presence, a sharpness and a foreign quality. The photograph is no longer the object but a semblance of it, intensified.
Perhaps this is what Hunstein meant when he said a photograph is not entirely a documentation of the object photographed. It is, instead, a separate entity, its own situation. Still, as with the photos in this show, photography’s separation can also be its strength, as it allows viewers to view real life objects anew. Larkin’s work is intriguing in its own right, but it is particularly special in its ability to refresh viewers’ excitement about the natural world, a perspective that could then be brought back out into nature itself, promoting new appreciation for flowers and plants and the live things that surround us. Photography may not produce exact and objective reproductions of what the camera sees, but it is definitely an extension of the objects photographed. Photographs remind us what makes the world interesting, oftentimes what makes it beautiful.
Portraits and Poetry
October 5, 2016
[Susan C.] Larkin uses a digital image processing technique called focus stacking, which involves compositing multiple images of varying focus into a single image. The result is that her photos have an overall clarity perfectly suited to her intricate, alien micro-worlds. Beautifully illuminated against black backgrounds, even familiar plants become unnervingly strange.
The artist varies her compositions, thus avoiding the sort of purposeful repetitiveness that characterizes the classic botanical photography of the German Karl Blossfeldt—otherwise a useful touchstone here.
Pieces such as Aquilegia (Columbine) and Dipsacus (Teasel) maintain a portrait-like distance, showing spiky and twisted forms crisply silhouetted against the dark. …Others such as Echinacea (Cone flower), Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace), and the Art Nouveau-like Iris domestica (Blackberry lily) use cropping to pull us in closer, creating a more abstract feel.
The Boyce Thompson Institute has been hosting botanically themed art exhibits in their lobby for the past couple or so years as a form of self-promotion and community outreach. The space was new to me and as I have been in the past, I was struck by the diversity of spaces on the Cornell campus for showing visual art. (And Larkin’s images are stronger than much of the contemporary work shown, for example, at the Johnson Museum or within the university’s Department of Art.)
December 20, 2015
Illustrator milly acharya and photographer Susan Larkin create eloquent botanical studies. Painted with watercolor in shades of rusty brown, acharya’s Miscanthus sinensis shows the flowering grass as a dense tangle. Her meticulous realism captures the specimen with an eerie sense of suspended motion. Larkin’s black-and-white digital photo Asclepias syriaca (milkweed) has a marvelous sense of chiaroscuro (light/dark contrast)—making her subject pop like a Baroque painting.
(Scarlet Runner Bean)
Image City Photography Gallery Holiday Show,
One of the components of an excellent photograph is often something termed “gesture”. Most of the time this is applied to photographs of people; however inanimate things can also show gesture. Obviously inanimate objects need to show gesture in a different way.
Susan’s photographs of desiccated parts of plants, using a wonderful series of macro photography techniques, display this concept of gesture in an excellent way. Scarlet Runner Bean lets the eye move along with the curls in the beans leaf forming a closed loop.
To say more about Susan’s technique, she uses her macro photography skills in a way that produces images that show the object in total focus from the front to the back, not an easy task! Setting these photographs against a black background allows the observer to focus solely on the subject of the photograph, the fascinating shapes and the wide variety of tones that are displayed.
Scarlet Runner Bean as well as the rest of the photos in this portfolio go way beyond simply taking a “grab” photograph of something that looks interesting. The photographs are beautifully lit, displaying the beautiful textures of the objects along with the strong compositional skills of the photographer.
These images transcend simply being documentation of parts of plants, which make these photographs something that one would love to have hanging on the wall in their home, possibly as a grouping of several.
Caryopteris in Winter
December 17, 2014
Watercolorist milly acharya and photographer Susan Larkin both specialize in detailed, beautiful close-ups of botanical specimens. acharya’s Rosa sp. is both sparing and profuse. The inkjet print Caryopteris in Winter is a collaboration between Susan and Timothy Larkin: her eloquently tonal black-and-white image above his lyrical poetry in graceful type.
Image City Photography Gallery
Black and White Invitational: November 2014
Peter’s Picks by Peter Marr
Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed)
by Susan C. Larkin
This is an amazing image of a plant bursting forth in all its glory and delicacy, captured at a peak moment in an incomparable manner by an artist who has an unsurpassed love and passion for nature, particularly taking superb close-ups that reveal extraordinary fine detail that few have been privileged to see. One would yearn to learn of the plant’s life story and to understand its language, but of course at this time it is not possible. Thankfully, we have Susan’s remarkable print that illustrates the last stages of this narrative. Here we experience a large seed pod, powerfully displayed on an entrancing diagonal line, bursting forth to release its seeds. This is a pod that has lovingly sheltered its precious cargo through an infinite range of climatic conditions, and has fostered a protective-paternalistic feeling for the seeds for a considerable time. The artist has captured the magical moment when the pod opens, and the seeds, with their silky parachutes that are superbly captured in this image are left to dance playfully together, before the wind plucks them into the air. One by one, the progeny of the plant drift off to an unknown destination, all hoping for a soft landing in perhaps moist soil, where they can eventually take root and successfully propagate the species. There is an impressive interplay of tonalities as well as the inspired use of the positive and negative space from the incorporation of the vibrant foreground and the black background. The vivid whites play against the dark grays and the black surround to create an artistic setting that results in a dramatic impact, together with the fact that the high contrast adds to the overall brilliancy of the image. Nature would be incredibly proud if they could see this print, that one of its magnificent creations has been captured so artistically and so inspiringly.
171 Cedar Arts Center 2014
From the selection panel for the Houghton Gallery Solo Exhibition Award:
(Bruce Baxter, Bath, NY; Marc H. Hample, Elmira, NY; Tom Oberg, Corning, NY)
The work in the Artful Raffle and Silent Auction offered many styles from traditional techniques to contemporary digital imaging. Choosing one person from such a talented group of artists was a difficult task.
Ultimately we chose Susan Larkin as the winner of this show. We felt that Susan’s photography really spoke to her mastery of her chosen medium. Susan’s use of light, composition and scale combined to create a rich experience for us as viewers. At each step of the creative process, from subject matter to materials, Susan’s choices allow the viewer to fully engage with her work.”
The Solo Exhibition will be in August, 2015.
State of the Art Gallery 2013:
Ithaca Times review by Arthur Whitman
Susan Larkin’s black-and-white Datura stramonium is a frame-filling close-up of a plant known for its hallucinogenic properties. It stands out among several floral and botanical images here with its alien complexity.
Portfolio Showcase 2010:
“Peter’s Pick” by Peter Marr
Intimate details of flora have been lovingly and impressively captured by Susan in her excellent portfolio presentation. We value wild nature in its place, and using consummate artistic skills, a lot of patience, and cutting-edge technology, she has given us eight images that show amazing structural detail, color, shape and form.
In Turkey Tail Mushrooms, it is very apparent that we all carry a sense of wonder at how exciting nature close-ups are, and if we listen carefully, we can surely hear the story they have to tell. This group of fungi has interwoven a spectacular range of shapes and textures that impressively play against one another. The eye is not directed to one particular area, but allowed to wander effortlessly in and around every curve and surface texture. On top of all of this, there is an explosion of a rich palette of unbelievable colors that visual enhance every element in this spectacular image. Although these mushrooms are aptly named, it is hard to imagine any turkey having such a rich, colorful and detailed tail as we see here. This resplendent print further enhances our knowledge, that nature is the greatest artist the world has seen. No one could have envisaged, let alone paint such a dynamic, striking image, and we all must be forever thankful, that this awesome, living entity, has been captured for posterity by an outstanding artist for all to marvel at and enjoy.
State of the Art Gallery 2010
Steven Skopik’s comments
In Susan Larkin’s “Monkshood” we see in an image whose allure is less cerebral than it is frankly sensual. Evoking the early twentieth century German photographer Albert Renger-Patchz, who similarly trained his camera on a range of different types of plants, usually withered and pictured against a blank background, Ms. Larkin’s picture meticulously describes her subject in a manner that grants it a delicious availability.
The appeal of Larkin’s piece is rooted in a quintessentially photographic effect. The photograph, more than any other type of representation, is able to offer forth its subject with a strange, urgent sense of “therenesss.” Larkin achieves this odd hyper-present effect through the use of razor-sharp focus, and her photo’s richly detailed tonal description of the withered stalks and pods. The plants have an astonishing luminous quality; they appear to radiate light, rather than reflect it. The net effect is to imbue these modest objects with an unaccountable sense of poised significance.
Finally, it must be said, that despite their husk-like state of desiccation, the plants possesses a vivid sensuality. No doubt this is in part due to the picture’s formal attributes (just described), but it also has to do with the subject matter, which summons up associations with life, death, and reproduction and renewal. I’m not familiar with this particular species, but I assume we’re looking at seed vessels of some sort. To declare that this is an erotic photograph is merely to state the facts; Larkin allows us to look lingeringly on the genitals and reproductive apparatus of a living–or once living– organism. Intended in an entirely complementary manner, this image is the exhibition’s most overtly lurid photograph.
Portfolio Showcase 2009:
“Peter’s Pick” by Peter Marr
Susan has certainly inherited the artistic talents from her parents, and her portfolio of prints magically shows us the beauty and intricacies of nature in a different and most illuminating way. We can certainly marvel at nature’s abstraction, and in “Monkshood” we see a picture of sublime beauty and melodious emotion. I love the powerful vertical format, which with the dramatic lighting and black background, enables us to clearly see every shape, structure, detail and design of this delightful plant. Artistically, the five sepals or “hoods” and the stems are beautifully placed in the frame. For me, I do not see this extremely detailed image as a static one. I see this plant in constant motion, twisting and turning gracefully as it reaches into the sky. The more that I look at this fascinating image, the more I hear music, soft, melodious and sensuous, and all the time the plant slowly and majestically sways with every changing chord. This is certainly a lovely image, one to keep looking at, to absorb, to wonder at, and maybe to dance to the music with.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle,
September 2, 2009
Susan Larkin captures the elegant forms of dry plant husks and other natural structures, bereft of color and dramatically lit. Isolated in a void of empty space, they bear the dormant potential of new life in their abundance of seeds. “Echinocystis lobata (Wild Cucumber)” is a spiny, broken-egg form, the complex workings of dark vessels visible in the paper-thin skin, and the whole composition lending the feeling of an alien, organic zeppelin hovering in space.