21/08/2019 (from my notebook)
The quality of the nature-prints was astonishing. The botanist Joseph Hooker announced the results were so good that ‘the plates seem to surpass the specimens themselves in elegance and in colouring’. According to The Times it was ‘as if the original specimens were pasted on paper’. But for mysterious reasons the process was abandoned and the method, lost. The few nature-prints that were made this way are rare, sought-after and extremely valuable. (Chelsea Physic Garden, 2019)
I was introduced to Pia’s work by Ben Jones (Arboretum Curator, Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum) following a chat about my project. Later Simon Hiscock (Head of Department and Director, Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum) also mentioned Pia, and offered to put us in touch!
Pia and I met up on a sunny afternoon for coffee alongside the river at the Botanic Garden. Pia asked about my project and I shared that I was feeling a little stuck in the research phase, without a clear way forward in terms of physically making work.
The conversation that followed substantially shifted things for me. It was so refreshing to talk over my ideas with Pia! Here are some of my notes from our chat, as well as some of my thoughts afterwards:
- No need to restrict yourself to just one plant or plant family. Photograph what you like.
- You already have your way of working, so use that. Think back to what you have created previously and feel happy with.
- What tends to catch your eye? (Me: form, light, shadow, things that are overlooked, unseen, discarded, things that become interesting when you slow down and take the time to look.)
- Learning lots of new methods takes time, perhaps work with what you know.
- Arguably the most important thing in photography is light… same for the plants and photosynthesis.
- Remembering my existing ways of working. (Me: Pairing poems/words with my images, descriptions, emoting feeling. Words from the past, that weren’t designed to go together, but that feel complementary.)
- You already know so much, and have done so much research, and you carry this with you, whether knowingly or not.
- Perhaps just photograph plants that catch your eye, in the light that you like. It doesn’t have to make sense scientifically.
- Making ‘incorrectly’ – coloured paper, experimenting with different compositions.
- Scientific methods – lights etc, but an artistic spin – using cut flowers? Lightboxes plus colour.
- When looking through the Herbaria collections think about what you are drawn to and why? e.g. composition, lighting, shapes, form, colours, textures, notes, stories.
- Things that aren’t categorised together, but look good visually. (Colour, location, shape, time.)
- Front and back of plants (leaves and flowers)
- Making it personal to me, because it will be no matter what.
Pia also showed me some of her nature-prints, as well as the plates she made to create them, and explained how she has revived this printing technique. She is running a workshop later this month near me which I am tempted to go to!
The technique of nature printing, which was developed by physicians in the 15th century to aid the study of medicinal and useful plants. The innovative technique gave rise to a wealth of strange and beautiful imagery in mid-19th century Vienna and London before it was lost. A discovery of a book in the Chelsea Physic Garden’s library led to a quest to revive it 150 years later. (Östlund, 2019)
I found an interview with Pia in the Guardian which summarises how she learned of the technique, and began her research and masters degree on the subject.
The [Chelsea Physic] garden has given something back to me. One day Rosie showed me an 1855 volume, Ferns Of Great Britain & Ireland, by Thomas Moore, the Victorian curator responsible for our Cool Fernery area. The curious, lifelike – as well as life-size – representations of ferns looked like nothing I had seen before. They were too detailed to be drawn by hand, yet clearly not photographs. Even stranger was the texture of the plants, which could be felt by running one’s finger across the image. Despite having quite a lot of experience of different types of printing, I was at a loss. The only clue was a small caption in the corner of the page that read “Nature Printing”. During the 19th century, there was a hunger for a form of scientific image-making, free from the artist’s hand. A plant was pressed into a sheet of lead under high pressure. This highly detailed impression was copied on to a copper printing plate and used for the mass printing of botanical works. – Pia Ostlund (Cable, 2019)
Reflecting on our chat, I immensely grateful to Pia. She really helped me feel inspired and get unstuck, creatively. I took this photo of a ‘Wild Carrot’ plant that had seeded itself in the pavement as I walked home.
I wrote to Pia today to thank her, and she said she was pleased my project was finding its shape, and that she felt it was all there, but just needed an entry point*. She also said our chat had helped her move forward with her project and we agreed to try and meet up again soon.
*This was a perfect summary for me. I just wasn’t sure how to get stuck in, practically speaking. I had narrowed my focus so much that I was making it difficult to actually take any photographs!
CABLE, J (2019). How does your garden grow: Pia Östlund of the Chelsea Physic Garden, London. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/mar/28/how-does-your-garden-grow-pia-ostlund-of-the-chelsea-physic-garden-london [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].
CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN. (2019). The Nature-Printer: a tale of industrial espionage, ferns and roofing lead. [online] Available at: https://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/shop/the-nature-printer [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].
ÖSTLUND, P. (2019). 28th Sep: Nature Printing With Pia Östlund | Daylesford. [online] Available at: https://www.daylesford.com/shop/events/28th-sep-nature-printing-with-pia-ostlund/ [Accessed 7 Sep. 2019].