While leafing through a recent book on still lifes by The Getty’s Paul Martineau, Still Life in Photography, I discovered a couple photographs that made me realize I had an unknown connection to certain photographers whose work I admire but never saw these specific images. I have purposely created images that are homages to favorite photographers, but there are also images that I’ve created, not knowing that they echo an image created long before mine. Such is the case with André Kertész’s image of a drooping tulip.
Melancholic Tulip, André Kertész
My Broken Tulip was created because of the way the morning light hit this unfortunate bloom. The way the light hits a certain object often stops me in my tracks and I run to get my camera. Such was the case with this particular tulip that was long past its prime.
The Broken Tulip
The same is true of an image created by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, another photographer whose work (along with the work of his wife, Lola), I greatly admire. Books, however, have been
Libros, Manuel Álvarez Bravo
a frequent subject in my photographs since I am always surrounded by stacks of them, so it’s not unlikely that I would create a similar image. There are other photographers who photograph books beautifully as well (Morrell, Mansfield), even as they decay (Purcell).
Martineau claims, “The revival of interest in the genre at the dawn of the twenty-first century comes as the digital age is transforming the medium.” My own still lifes feel less transformative, but rather contemplative, leaning back on those from whom I have, knowingly or unknowingly, drawn inspiration.
The joy of research means discovering new things, like a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems virtually unknown today. Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, the fictionalized story of the Gullah community on Peterkin’s plantation in South Carolina, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1929. A Devil and a Good Woman, Too by Susan Millar Williams, is the only biography written about her. Thomas Landess’s book, pictured here, offers some biographical information, but it concentrates mainly on Peterkin’s oeuvre, including Roll, Jordan, Roll, the collaboration between Peterkin and photographer, Doris Ulmann. This is the first, published collaboration between a woman photographer and a woman writer. Appearing in 1933, it predates similar, collaborations, like Cabins in the Laurel, featuring a collage-like memoir by Muriel Earley Sheppard and the photographs of Bayard Wooten. Roll, Jordan, Roll also predates more famous collaborations like Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Roll Jordan Roll
Not long ago, I discovered the work of a little-known photographer who never got recognition for his work during his lifetime, and his aesthetic speaks directly to mine in the kinds of subjects he chose and in the kinds of contexts in which he shot them. Charles Jones’s work makes me want to run out and buy produce. In fact, it has. An Englishman born in 1866, he was a lifelong gardener, a very private person according to surviving family members, and apparently, a gifted photographer who made, quite literally, the fruits of his labors his photographic subjects.
Beets, Charles Jones
Like Vivian Maier’s work, Jones’s work was discovered accidentally. Photograph collector, Sean Sexton, found a trunk for sale at a London antique market that was filled with hundreds of photos of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Apparently, “they had been passed over and scored by dealers and collectors earlier in the day” but “Sexton instantly saw an originality and quality in the works.” (I need to frequent large flea markets more often.) Sexton then published some of the images in his book Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones in 1998, but the book was re-released in 2016 with an introduction by Alice Waters.
I can clearly see the love this photographer had for his subject matter. According to Sexton, there are no surviving negatives, so the prints are all that’s left of Mr. Jones’s legacy, in addition to a few stories by surviving relatives about the photographer himself. You can find a wonderful piece about the photographer on this site along with more of his images: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2012/03/09/charles-jones-gardener-photographer
Jones died on November 15, two days after I was born, but I’d like to think I carry forward the legacy of his work. Though I didn’t grow the plant matter I photograph, the fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other botanicals are as alive to me as they were to Jones. This one is for you, Mr. Jones, with gratitude.