Based in Amherst, Massachusetts, photographer Shelley Kirkwood captures flowers and foliage in striking compositions. This year, a selection of photographs from her series I’ll Follow the Sun were shown at the RHS Botanical Art and Photography Show at the Saatchi Gallery in London; it was announced that she had won a gold medal and the Best in Show award for Best Portfolio Photography Exhibit. “I was stunned,” she says. “I love the idea of my work being in public places, and to have it seen in different contexts.”
Shelley has always been drawn to photography as a medium, feeling compelled to capture “a sense of surprise and wonder” in her work. As a photography student, she would pore over the work of American photographers including Diane Arbus and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, enjoying how they touch upon “unconscious layers of existence.” Taking that idea forward into her own work, Shelley seeks to “reveal something that I’m feeling in the simplest way.”
I’ll Follow the Sun was conceived for an exhibition in Tucson, Arizona, shortly after she had moved from there to the east coast. Named after the Beatles song, it began as a “tender homage” to the place she had left; she asked her friends to send plants to her in the post. “So here I was in this new context, opening boxes of botanicals from the place that I was missing,” she explains. “It was a really sensory experience. I would open the packages and smell the desert.” She began to arrange the plants and pare back her compositions, simplifying them. “I was really trying to represent the essence of each plant, and what was really luminous about it to me,” she says. Living and dead plants were integrated into the compositions, and Shelley intended to make them “almost look like it was possible for them to appear naturally.”
Shelley continued the series with plants found close by to her home in Massachusetts, beginning with those found in the forests and meadows, then moving to cultivated specimens – each tied to a memory of place. She lives on a small farm with her family and grows vegetables and herbs in the garden, with lemon balm and thyme for teas. She intends to establish a large flower garden, and has already planted sweet peas, echinacea, calendula and morning glory. She knows the gardeners at the colleges close to her home, and they let her sift through the compost piles to find flowers which she will photograph or plant.
“It’s a quiet and contemplative process,” she says, explaining that meditation has been integral to much of her adult life. “I think there are lots of ways you can have that kind of experience, and it doesn’t have to be a sitting meditation. For me, it’s about silence and slowing down.”
Working in her basement studio, Shelley sometimes takes up to 50 photographs of an arrangement to achieve the desired result. “It’s almost like painting, where I’m adding elements or paring things back,” she explains. Shelley keeps her equipment simple, considering herself to be a “devotee” of old-school practice; she has previously worked in curation at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, where she delved into collections of 19th and 20th century photographs.
The amplified scale of the images when printed reflects Shelley’s consideration of her photographs as monuments to her history. Shelley was inspired by a series called Woman Thinking River by the British photographic artist Susan Derges, who created “enormous prints based on Japanese printmaking,” she explains. “The scale was created by considering a person’s physical body size in relation to the artwork, so I had that in the back of my mind when thinking about how large to print the images.” Seeing plants enhanced in scale draws focus to an ethereal sense of texture and reminds us of their significance as part of the natural world. “It makes the plants almost stand outside of time.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs courtesy of Shelley Kirkwood.