Read an Excerpt
The Architecture of Nature Enhanced
by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
Some of the world's best artists and photographers have been obsessed with natural forms, and artists have adopted the objective or scientific gaze ever since Leonardo da Vinci made anatomical drawings and studies of plants, wind, and water currents. John James Audubon's bird and animal paintings and Karl Blossfeld's austere black and white photographs of plants are other examples in which scientific observation and art converge. These artists rendered things as they are, yet they exceeded the dry exactitude of science or mere illustration by addressing their pictures simultaneously to both scientific and aesthetic concerns. Rather than hazily contemplating the pastoral sublime, such artists were meticulous and rational analysts of the specific. They broke new ground by picturing the unseen and the too-often overlooked in nature.
Harold Feinstein's photographs of fruits, vegetables, weeds, grasses, and other botanical forms fall strictly within a long tradition of such close and ecstatic seeing. Radical in their bold and skillful use of computer technology, his recent botanical, digitally enhanced, color images are a contemporary variant of ideas that began with the Enlightenment. His latest work, Foliage, which you are about to enjoy, is both a companion to and a departure from his previous book, One Hundred Flowers. In this new book the veteran photographer explores the foliage and vegetable forms of nature using a virile precision and a painter's loving eye.
His horticultural vision is an extension of the conventions of Western botanical illustration set in the early 18th and 19th centuries by such European masters as James Sowerby, Franz Bauer, Joseph Banks, and Pierre-Joseph Redouté. The work of these earlier artists is characterized by truth to nature that also emphasized pattern and symmetry, simplification, and the enlargement and isolation of forms. Feinstein's images for his latest book incorporate similar formal conventions.
The scale, style, and subject matter of Foliage make it clear that Feinstein has inherited the inquiring spirit first demonstrated in the great era of the taxonomic illustration of plants that began around 1700 and ran for over two hundred years. The results were published -- often in severely limited editions -- as sumptuously produced folio-size books of engraved color plates. These were volumes whose development documented the rise of scientific thought, the investigation of natural history and the expansion of botanical exploration. These lavish products of the newest technical developments in printing and engraving represented the cutting edge of evolving printing technologies. Desirable at first for their visual elegance, as well as for the information they contained, they are still coveted by collectors today. (Satcheverell Sitwell documented many of the landmarks of botanical publishing in his beautiful Great Flower Book, published in 1956).
Feinstein's dramatically architectural photographs of grasses, leaves, fruits, and vegetables link him to a great historical tradition. Such images as his sensuous and monumental yellow pepper and his sculptural cactuses also reveal his modernist affinities with Edward Weston, Paul Srand, and Minor White. But his new pictures really mark a new and different chapter in a long and distinguished career as a photographer and teacher. His horticultural pictures evidence a definitive shift in scale, subject, and technique from the black and white photographs that made his reputation in the 1950s. Feinstein has been a widely published professional photographer for some 55 years. He established his name with his animated documentary images of dense, democratic urban life in and around Coney Island (where he was born) and New York City. His success came quickly; by the time he was 19, Edward Steichen had bought some of his prints for the Museum of Modern Art's permanent photography collection.
Even though he set out to be a painted, and painted throughout much of his adolescence, he recalls the fascination of his initial introduction of photography while he was in fifth grade. That was the day that one of his school friends showed him the rudimentary darkroom set up on the bureau in the friend's apartment bedroom. He began actually taking photographs when he was fifteen. Fascinated by technique from the start, Feinstein also became a renowned master printer and teacher of silver printing.
During his professional career as a photographer, painting never entirely receded from his thoughts. His initial botanical studies began when he was living in Vermont between 1973 and 1977. One day he shot some pictures of weeds that were growing in his back yard, thinking he would keep them as visual notes to server as a sort of diary and sketchbook -- "maybe provide something to paint from later," he says now. When he looked at the images later on, he was so struck by their power that he made them the basis for a gallery exhibition of black and white photographs he called "In Celebration of Weeds."
Feinstein has always been an avid technical experimenter and a technologically skilled printer. His "hands-on" approach and his emphasis on pragmatic clarity and concrete demonstration are some of the characteristics that have made him such a legendary teacher. He had begun his experiments with color photography by 1976, the year that Life magazine published a selection of images from his portfolio of dye-transfer prints of flowers. Later, he made a series of Cibachromes of flowers. Now, his luscious, digitally enhanced, folio-sized botanical images simply represent the latest foray in a lifelong experimentation with available image-producing technologies.
The master printer recognized the artistic and archival limitations of chemical photographic processes; especially those involved in color printing. So it's no surprise that the invention of digital technology made him an enthusiastic "early adapter" of the electronic tools that have revolutionized photography in less than a decade. Along with everything else they have changed, computerized technologies have utterly transformed the capturing, storing, retrieval, manipulation and transmission of image, making the process more flexible and easier than anyone could have ever imagined. Quicker than many of his younger colleagues, Harold Feinstein saw that digital technology is as radical a force as the invention of movable type. It became a key element in the recent evolution of his work and he became an expert in using the new tools.
The photographer bought his first Macintosh in 1995, intending to use it to catalogue his archive of black and white images. What he discovered was a new technical flexibility that gave him back much of the freedom of painting. This was especially true when it came to color, since the computer, by providing the ability to manipulate and inexpensively produce color images at will, frees the photographer from dependence on turning color over to the lab. Feinstein, known for his excellence at silver printing, says, "The end of chemical development is not he end of photography. I can now make a better digital print than a silver print."
His new plant photographs have a freshness and strength that reflect a direct transfer of the artistic impulse to the final image. The digital camera and the computer enable this to happen through their ability to redefine processes ad to remove many of the physical barriers between the artist and the realization of his work. "The gift of photography is that it is an art based in spontaneity, " Feinstein says. "Yet in the darkroom, when you make a print, it takes time. Digital prints also take an enormous amount of time -- each one can take eight hours or more -- but it's different. But because you can make incremental changes, digital tools let you keep the immediacy of your original impulse." He points out that each step on the computer gives you an immediate response and "encourages more accidents, which are an essential element of creativity."
His large, ink-jet ("Giclee") prints, made with pigmented inks (whose archival stability now rivals or surpasses that of Cibachromes) and his large Iris prints are tours de force of color deployed with a highly refined intensity. His digital skills have made Feinstein in demand as a leading industry consultant. They also have given him access to state-of-the-art equipment. These days he is testing a prototype of a digital scanning device that attaches directly to the computer to produce an immediate 8 x 10 inch image on the computer screen.
Feinstein excels at making the humblest, most familiar vegetable or weed provoke our astonishment and scrutiny. His wonder at the world remains undimmed. He says, "With my photographs, I want to do for horticulture what Audubon did for birds and animals." The images in Foliage, perhaps even more than the photographer's flowers, invite his viewers to ponder the infinite architectural variety of nature. He examines everything from ferns and greases to grapes and Hosta leaves; from dissected artichokes and tomatoes to a tapestry of maple seeds, every shape isolated against deep black backgrounds. These images teach us again that the gorgeous diversity of nature is an inexhaustible subject.