Photographer and artist Joyce Tenneson says the West Gallery of the U.S. Botanic Garden, where her photographs are on display, is “a room people should come to, to renew their spirits.”
Tenneson’s photographs focus on the formal aspects of flowers, like a stem or a small part of a plant. “They look beautiful in this room,” she said while conducting a tour of the exhibit last week.
Titled “The Sensual Essence of Flowers,” the exhibit features 12 of Tenneson’s 30-foot-by-60-foot prints. Tenneson said the prints take up half her studio in New York City, but in the West Gallery, where they are hanging just below the ceiling, they look “tiny.”
“Flowers all have their own beauty,” she said. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” she said of seeing all flowers as similar.
“I see flowers like people,” she said. “I am fascinated by how people reveal themselves, and I brought that passion and knowledge to photographing flowers.”
Tenneson said she aims for her photographs to look “simple, elegant and easy,” which is “hard to do.”
“I am very tough on myself in terms of getting something that I haven’t seen before,” she said. “I tried to go beyond the surface of the outer facade, beneath the clichés and stereotypes to find the secret parts of flowers.”
Tenneson said she tried to photograph the sweet pea 30 times before she took a photograph that she liked. “It reminds me of angel wings,” she said of the flower.
Tenneson began photographing flowers more than 25 years ago when she was living in Washington, D.C. “It was a form of meditation,” she said.
When Tenneson, who is best known for her black-and-white studies of people, was photographing women over age 65 for her book, “Wise Women,” she said she discovered “beauty is not just in the bloom; it’s in all phases of life.”
This discovery inspired Tenneson to photograph a rose in full bloom, after three days and after five days. This series of photographs became part of her book, “Flower Portraits.”
The prints in the exhibit at the Botanic Garden are from Tenneson’s 10th book, “Intimacy: The Sensual Essence of Flowers,” which will be in bookstores this month. The book is about “the intimate relationship that we can have with flowers,” she said.
One of Tenneson’s favorite images is her photograph of a hydrangea, which she said “looks like a dancer.”
Some of the prints in the exhibit, such as the oxalis and the mango lily, are actually two images combined, Tenneson said. Two photographs together can be “so much stronger as a single image,” she said. “Seeing them in different forms gives a much different feeling. You feel the flower more.”
In the photographs, each flower is set against a background of black velvet. Since Tenneson “sees flowers as jewels,” she said she presents them as a jeweler presents jewelry in a store.
According to a recent poll conducted by American Photo Magazine, Tenneson is among the 10 most influential female photographers in the history of photography. Her work has been shown in more than 150 exhibits and has appeared on several magazine covers.
Tenneson lives two blocks from the flower district in New York City and said when she is in the city, she is at the flower market at 6 a.m. five days a week looking for new flowers to photograph.
She noted that after she walked through the Botanic Garden for an hour, she had found only one flower that she had never seen before — the bat flower.
“It’s really been a love affair that I’ve had with these flowers,” she said. “It’s changed my life.”
The exhibit will be on display in the West Gallery until Oct. 31. Admission is free.