Since we started SSAW we have been collaborating with photographer Gaetan Bernede to create bespoke wraps for our bunches. We were first introduced to Gaetan’s work through his Dying Flowers project - it was a subject that really resonated with us. For us, flowers are vital for their sense of the ephemeral; a constant reminder of temporality and the fleeting nature of existence. We have become so used to imported blooms which don’t move and last for weeks. But nothing is ever still in nature. Without being macabre, growing flowers and having them in a vase, is an opportunity to appreciate the fullness of the cycle of life. Sometimes the truth is that flowers are their most beautiful just before their very end, when the petals extend out the furthest - open and expansive, like arms outstretched, embracing the world.
WE SPOKE TO GAETAN ABOUT HIS PHOTOGRAPHY PRACTICE, HERE IS OUR INTERVIEW.
How did your exploration into photographing flowers begin, and why?
To be honest: convenience. When I was starting out, testing new techniques and ideas, I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. Flowers seemed like a good subject - unmoving, patient, yet changing over time. They allowed me to focus and to be as experimental as possible. Then, as is often the case with anything new, the more you look into it the more details you grasp, the more you understand the more you are fascinated by it; so the flowers stuck.
Can you tell us about your dying flowers project? What is it about dying flowers in particular that interests you?
It kind of imposed itself on me. As I said, I was using flowers to try new things out and I was practising working with collodion. I had planned on documenting a Lily through time, being heavily inspired by Muybridge’s work and chronophotography in general. So, I set up my tripod and did six different exposures over a week. I was so glad of every shot. It really is a unique feeling seeing a flower emerging onto a wet piece of glass held between your fingers.
It surprised me but it was the sixth plate that moved me the most. The petals had wrinkled, most of them had fallen, except one, still standing proud - the pistils carrying some faint semblance of life. I loved the tension in it all, the sense of beauty coming from it. Something quite pure, not manicured like most flower shots I had seen. It was like discovering “Une Charogne” by Baudelaire in high school. I then just carried on. I’m not quite clear why, except that I loved how the photographs became a little bit more “abstract” as the artifices of life fell away. I had always worked by removing; be that in drawings or photography, leaving just the minimum needed to understand. Here it was as if by removing most of the living component, the small amount that is still present was magnified.
In an increasingly frenetic and fast paced modern world, slowing down our ways of working is hugely important to us. The almost antiquated, analogue process of developing silver gelatine prints strikes us as similar. How did you get into it and who did you learn from?
Being the son and grandson of antiquarians, I think my experience of the past and “old things” is a bit more relative than most people; certainly an interesting relationship with the concept of time seems to have always been really present in my work. I grew up surrounded by old artefacts. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen and getting curious about other ways to produce images other than drawing, my dad started giving me old cameras. I was fascinated about how these little black boxes worked. How could such a simple thing produce images? I toyed a bit with pinhole cameras; started using a 1970’s 35mm reflex; rapidly, I got myself an enlarger and started processing and printing in my bedroom at night. I learnt just by doing it - and with thanks to the internet, I managed to find all the resources I needed. I made so many mistakes, it’s funny now that I think about it! However by the time I went Uni, I had a decent working knowledge and camera collection! I also made friends with the darkroom technicians and learned even more just by chatting with them. I would find an image I loved, read the description and then - sometimes realising it was made using a process unknown to me - I would research it and read online about it, get the chemicals, try it, fail… but always carry on trying.
How does the process make you feel? Has is impacted the way you relate to other aspects of your life?
I truly feel free from the constraints of time when working in this way. I have always been drawn to slow processes or long exposures, not only does this require patience but everything has to be done on the spot, while the emulsion is still wet. For each shot, I probably spend fifteen or twenty minutes just getting the image. This isn’t that bad, but it’s a far cry from snapping away like you can with a 35mm camera. The large format cameras I use are bigger and heavier. The one I used to take the Dying Flowers images I built myself with my own hands. I wanted the limitations of my tools to be my own limited skills as a maker. And I love using my hands to do things. There is nothing quite like handling a little piece of glass in the palm of your hand and seeing an image appear in them. This is a physical relationship which I love. Shooting this way, you really feel like you are floating.
There is nothing quite like handling a little piece of glass in the palm of your hand and seeing an image appear in them.
How do the seasons affect your practice, and day to day, not just in your work and art, but in your own routines and physically too?
I would say winter has the greatest impact on me workwise as I prefer to work at night, when I find it easier to lose track of time, and the days are quite short and the nights long here in England during this period. I find I do a lot less in the summer as I just want to sit on a terrace or walk outside and enjoy the season!
What do you think is the most important thing that everyone should know about what you are doing when you are taking pictures?
That the photograph is exposed on glass, not printed. It is unique.
Why were you interested in making wraps for flowers? What inspired you?
I saw a pop-up done by Prada in Paris for a fashion week. They printed their campaign and wrapped flowers with them. I thought I could do something more relevant. I like the idea of offering art where you do not expect it, and especially around something as pure as flowers - it seems the perfect way to show work outside the classic exhibition setup.
How has it felt taking pictures of flowers in full bloom?
Easier actually, at least they are a bit more solid when you handle them. I don’t have to be scared a petal may fall as soon as I touch it; that’s quite nice.
Do you have a garden? What is your relationship with nurturing living things aside from photographing their dying process?
I am lucky enough to have a little city garden. It fills me with so much joy to sit there and drink my coffee; however I must confess I shamelessly let my flatmate do all the gardening! I suppose after all we have opposite views on flowers: she really likes them alive, while I prefer them dying!
Do you have any strong passions/viewpoints with regards to photography and nature/seasonality/sustainability that you wish to amplify?
Sometimes I feel we are trapped in an engineer mindset of trying to optimise every aspect of our life and work, but when looking at flowers we are reminded that certain things take a certain time, and that is how it is, full stop. There is no shame in taking time. Nowadays, when it comes to image making and consuming, everything has to be fast, but for no real reason as far as I can tell. Indulging in these old processes makes me much more thoughtful about every decision I take, which means I am really here in that moment.