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A Vase of Flowers

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It was a compelling, if also utterly mundane, sight: a vase of flowers sitting on our living room table. The flowers had come from Suzann, our favorite florist, who had worked the same wedding as we a few nights earlier.

We love her work. Suzann orders flowers by the metric ton, or so it seems, and leftovers from a job, or stuff destined for the trash after but a few hours' glory at a wedding reception, often wind up on Judy's and my doorstep on Suzann's late night way home from work. [My wife and partner, who also is a gardener, never met a flower she didn't like.]

That's what happened this time. "I've got some flowers for you," Suzann told Judy one recent Saturday as we hooked up with her at a church in Leesburg, Va., a half hour or so before the ceremony. Suzann was wrapping up with the church decorations and corsages as we began to set up our tripods and make light readings.

Sure enough, hours later, as we trudged gear-laden up the steps of our home around midnight, we found waiting for us a box brimming with tulips, poppies and other flowers whose names I'll never know. The fact that they are beautiful is enough for me.

Whenever I judge photography competitions at camera clubs I usually can count on at least two or three close-ups of flowers to show up on the screen or the print table, and this does not make me happy. That's because these pictures tend to say more about the macro-focus capability of the photographer's lens than about the image's mood, composition or lighting. And because of that I often preface my low rating of these pictures with my Irving Penn story.

Years ago, Penn, who is one of photography's true Renaissance men, made a series of studio-lit photos of flowers (tulips especially) that simply stunned me. The composition, the gesture – the mood – was sensual, serene and overwhelmingly floral. These were not clinical, bloodless anatomical close-ups; these were portraits. And they were beautiful.

"It's why I no longer take flower pictures," I've told my audiences. Penn simply had done it all and there was no way I or anyone else could match, much less top, him.

[In truth, I also keep in the back of my head Edward Steichen's glorious black and white image "Heavy Roses" – another masterpiece – this one bespeaking abundance and rich, if fading, beauty.]

And yet...there I was on a recent afternoon mesmerized, enjoying the creative tickle of knowing I was about to make a picture – a picture of flowers.

It is a peculiar pleasure, after doing something for decades, to know when all conditions mesh. And when that happens only the foolish will fail to act.

And so I looked at the vase of flowers and noted how the color gradation in these parrot tulips called to mind the beautiful use of color I had seen at a recent show of impressionist painting at Washington's Phillips' Collection. But most important I saw how the play of window light over these flowers caused these already beautiful things simply to glow. The effect was magical.

I sat there for a few minutes just marveling at how perfectly the light and the color were coming together at that instant. This is the best part of being a visual artist – experiencing this frisson of sensation and appreciating the perfect balance it portrays. In still life and landscape photography, this is the decisive moment.

But the other side of this experience is more practical: knowing that these conditions will not last indefinitely, especially not the light. So, shaking off my artsy reverie, I looked for a camera. And when I set up my small tripod next to the vase of flowers, it was my digital snapshooter, not my Hasselblads, Leicas or Nikons that rested on top. And that was because now I not only wanted to capture beauty; I wanted to experiment with it as well.

If the gloriously variegated color of the tulips was what intrigued me at first, how well could my digital camera (a Canon PowerShot G-1) capture it?

And, knowing digital's wonderful ability to balance color rendition to accommodate different light sources, how would these variations look side-by-side – assuming the correct (i.e.: daylight-balanced) mode would be my baseline?

Granted, I have done similar visual fiddling with film, trying different emulsions, filtration and exposures to create variations on a theme. But given the fleeting quality of the light, I wanted to make these images as quickly as I could, and also be able to experiment.

So digital it was – and the results I got surprised me as much as they delighted me.

I found that the images that pleased me most, that gave me the closest feeling of what I saw, were those made with the camera set for Average White Balance, even though the entire scene was lit by available window light during the day, with no incandescent or other lights operating. The "sunlight" image was far too orange, losing most of the subtlety of color that had drawn me to the picture in the first place.

Go figure.

And even the picture I love, shown here, is not a true picture of what I saw. In fact, Judy remarked, when she arrived home and compared all my images with the real thing, the "keeper" photo is more purple than the actual flowers.

Go figure. Or, more to the point, so what?

I probably could have manipulated the color more to my preconception in PhotoShop. But that would have meant knowing PhotoShop, which, frankly, I do not, except in only its most rudimentary form. [Trust me, I am learning, and when I do learn it, you'll be the first to read about it right here.]

The important thing was that I was able to capture to my own satisfaction a fleeting moment when conditions of light and color were perfect, and was able to complement them with a pleasing composition.

Note how this is not a view of a flower from the top down. It was the very feminine sidelong sweep of petals of the parrot tulip on the left that drew me to make this particular image. Being on a tripod also gave me the luxury of composing this image to the best of my ability, and to look through the viewfinder for a long time before deciding I liked what I saw enough to capture it. Little things count here – the lovely little pod in the lower right that rises in fuzzy juxtaposition to the elegant and older flower to the left. The little bit of out of focus yellow in the upper right that creates a bright backdrop that helps separate the flowers from their background.

The almost platter-like rich red of the flowers at the lower left that helps define the boundaries of the picture and draws our eye back again to the curved line of the parrot's petals.

The whole picture session lasted maybe twenty minutes. But I had brought more than 30 years of picture-making experience into the effort and – this time, anyway – came up with a winner that I will take pleasure in for years.

It's nice when that happens. But you already know that; you've been there too.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Average White Balance setting on digital camera emphasized the differences in color that fascinated me with this floral arangement. While the color is not accurate – more purple than in real life – I loved how it looked

© Frank Van Riper
Though this image was made under "daylight" conditions, the digital camera produced a picture that was far warmer (more orange) than it really was.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Film: Premature Obituary

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies

Building Pictures of Buildings

A Magnificent Platinum Obsession

Capturing Motion/Creating Motion

Dancing with Seniors – Shooting Cheek to Cheek