Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Flowers have to be one of the most photographed subjects imaginable. I mean, how can you not like flowers, right? Everyone with a camera is tempted to take a whack at them. I can recall pointing my brand-new Pentax 35mm SLR at my wife's day lilies nearly 20 years ago and burning through some rolls. When those K64 slides came back I was underwhelmed by the results. My wife glanced over my shoulder at the light box and muttered, "Maybe you should try birds or something." Other folks have obviously had more success. In the last two years "brand-name" photographers including Howard Schatz, Barbara Bordnick and Joyce Tenneson have all done books of flower images. Current fashion appears to favor close-ups of huge drooping blossoms, or sepia toned images of dried up and dying blooms. The books do seem to fly off the shelves, so there's obviously a market for them.
Given the ubiquitious, done-to-death nature of flower photos, it takes some work to do something creative. Scott Peck's gorgeous series of flowers frozen in ice is one unique effort. Tony Mendoza's new work, titled simply Flowers, is another. Mendoza is a Cuban-born photographer probably best known for Ernie, a book of photos of the cat he shared a loft with in NYC. Published in 1982, it acquired something of a cult following. The images are genuinely witty, in an Elliott Erwitt sort of way.
Flowers is a new direction for Mendoza. The introduction explains how he began photographing a community garden tended by his wife, finding that the zero incremental cost of digital exposures made it painless to experiment. The resulting book of images has a consistent style and æsthetic that kind of grew on me. I must confess that I find most flower photography saccharine to the point of nausea. Mendoza's work is different. The flowers are all photographed from ground level—i.e. from below—with relatively short focal lengths. All are lit with flash, most about a half stop to a stop "hotter" than the sky behind them. The resulting images are almost disorienting, sort of a "Land of the Giants" perspective where the occasional passing bumble bee looks the size of a beagle. Some of the flowers are clearly past their prime, others immaculate. The level of well-lit detail demonstrates how bizarre many plants are when you really study them closely.
As a physical object the book is impressive for its dimensions, 12.2 x17.6". The fifty plates are therefore large enough to have serious impact; the color and detail really hit the eye. Some care has obviously been taken in laying out the images; the color palette and tonality of facing pages harmonize perfectly. The only negative is a quirk of the printing process; the plates demonstrate bronzing when seen at a glare angle, though they look fine under normal illumination. This is a problem familiar to anyone who's ever tried printing on glossy paper with a pigment inkjet. Mendoza's witty introduction and afterward add a bit of perspective to the project.
If you love flowers and gardening, this book is worth a look for its unique take on the subject. It may inspire you to dust off your flash and look at your own backyard garden again. It also demonstrates once again the impact of a consistent body of work, perhaps inspiring folks to organize a portfolio of their own. And that's not a bad thing.
*The website of Nazraeli Press, the publisher of Flowers, is well worth a look for those who are interested in fine art photography. They specialize in quirky titles, some of which you are very unlikely to see at your local Borders or Barnes & Noble. They also appear to spend little if anything on promoting their books, so you have to seek them out. Their backlist includes many books by such luminaries as Robert Adams, Michael Kenna, Todd Hiro and Kenro Izu.
Consider yourself warned, however: for bibliophiles it's like letting the horse loose in the grain bin. —G.W.