Photographer William Arnold got intrigued by the botanical life while on walks during his lunch breaks in Truro, Cornwall. He began gathering plants and making images of them using the Victorian-era technique of silver gelatin printing.
To produce the works in this series, the living specimens are collected and identified, then taken to the darkroom to be projected, enlarged and logged as a unique pure form-study in silver-gelatin prints. While the process in many ways harkens back to Victorian life-sciences and the work of English botanist and pioneering photographer Anna Atkins, this method of projection, in effect using the specimen as lantern slide, reveals a razor-sharp, almost sculptural detail. Once the moment of printing is passed, no further copies can be made.
Recorded in this way the flora that we normally walk past in our hedgerows and kerb-sides, or eradicate as weeds, command our full attention. Isolated from their original environment and elevated to a more rarefied status, we are allowed to study the lines and systems of their veins; marvel at the delicacy of their stems and the arrangement of their petals.
My head is aswim with thoughts as I look at these photos; they're a series of visual and conceptual shout-outs to scientific history. The Victorian period was crackling with amateur botany, including discoveries made via precisely Arnold's method of meandering around one's neighborhood and just sort of noticing stuff. The eerie monochromaticism of the photos — how they resemble ultradetailed sketches — makes me think, too, of the tradition of scientific illustration that flourished up to the age of photography. (Many thought photography would render scientific illustration obsolete, and partly has, but not entirely; an illustrator can filter details with a granularity and abstraction difficult to achieve with photography.)
Meanwhile, the stark contrast and lighting of the images make the plants look almost translucent, evoking the advent of xray technology in the final years of the Victorian period; but they also evoke photocopy-prints, and the many ways artists have used the freaky level of contrast to make black-and-white photocopy art.
There's also an unsettlingly alien quality to Arnold's photos, as Mark Cocker notes in his foreword to the book:
As I look more generally at the whole collection, I am reminded of the words of two great philosophers. The first are from the French poet Paul Valéry, who once wrote "To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees". What I assume he meant was that if we look hard and long enough at something then the physical processes of that genuine seeing will triumph over any presumed familiarities with an animal or plant. The organism will cease to be known and ordinary. The tired sheath of language in which we have trapped the subject will fall away and it will be revealed afresh in a new and radiant light. That is exactly what Arnold has achieved. He has made us see the plants as if for the first time.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, I'm also reminded of those comic words of Dr Spock. As always, Captain Kirk would turn to his first lieutenant on the USS Enterprise for answers, and Spock would comb the air around the mysterious object with his weird whirring box thing, and then announce to his boss: "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."
Here are some more images!