I first became interested in Monet’s water lilies when I was teaching black-and-white photography in Virginia, over 40 years ago. Of course, I had always loved the paintings; I grew up with his long panel at the Museum of Modern Art, which was a kind of second home as a teenager.
But while I loved them, I hadn’t really thought about them.
Because the photo lab where I taught back then was set up entirely for black-and-white, I thought in black-and-white. Seeing that way is different from seeing in color. A bright red might grab your eye in a scene you look at, but in the monochrome print you make, it is the same gray as a green or a blue. So, you learn to see in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. The world becomes translated to patches of charcoal and blasts of ivory.
Such seeing — and thinking — leads to seeing your frame as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of those highlights and shadows, and you use them to make designs. Patterns. It is what is taught as “composition.” Rule of thirds; foreground-background. The frame edge becomes a kind of corral fence inside of which you deploy the monochrome elements of your design.
But, looking at Monet’s nymphéas, I realized there was very little careful design, the way I was taught to see. Especially in the long ribbon-like murals of water lilies. I wondered if there were a way to make a successful black-and-white version of them.
Back then, there was no digital photography; it was all Tri-X, Dektol and Kodabromide. I couldn’t easily drain an image of a Monet painting of its color to see what it looked like in black-and-white. But there were old art books that had black-and-white illustrations, and I found a few of those books and attempted to study them. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to look at such a painting; without the color, the image was vague, inchoate and pointless.
At first, I put it all down to poor reproduction. Perhaps if I made my own photographs. So I dragged out my 4-by-5-inch field camera and tripod and drove down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge on Back Bay, at the north end of the Outer Banks, where there was a rich crop of Nymphaeaceae (the scientific name of the water lily family, a name richer in vowels than the plant is in chlorophyll).
Now, I had photographed water lilies before. I made some images I was happy with at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. But there, I was photographing individual water lilies, or small pairs or trios, which allow for easy disposition into designs. Or I could use a single blossom as a point of focus.
What I was now interested in was the mass of lily pads floating on a larger body of water, a deracinated version of Monet’s luscious color images. Was there something of value that could be extracted from the subject?
It isn’t as though Monet has not had imitators. Since his first water lilies in the 1860s, there have been knock-offs. The 20th century is especially full of epigones. Most all have managed to attempt some variation not on water lilies, per se, but variations on Monet’s take on water lilies.
They’ve been done in water colors
In thick impasto
in pen and ink
in silk screen or other print forms
and my favorite: wallpaper
Even Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein has had his go at the subject
The impact of Monet’s flurry of flowers has been enormous. I got on the queue and tried my luck.
I carried my bulky view camera out to the wildlife refuge and set it up looking down on a clutch of lily pads and tried to find a way to frame them that made sense.
The initial problem was how to make a black-and-white design with so chaotic a subject matter. Should I angle the camera out to exaggerate the near-far relationship? Should I attempt the “overall” design and find them roughly equal size in the frame?
Should I use massed pads as individual subjects and pair groups rather than individual pads?
Or use clear sections of water as negative space?
Should I get close and single out an individual? I could put bits of others agains the frame edge to irregularize the rectangle.
I tried many different approaches.
The results look best shown as 20”-24” prints, large for photographs — almost the size of paintings. (The physicality of prints, the rich black of the silver image, and the impact of the size is impossible to show on a digital screen. You have to imagine.)
After all this, what was my conclusion? Well, I never really came to one. My photographs were interesting enough, but I’m not sure they told me that much about Monet’s sense of design.
That had to wait until I managed to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, some 30 miles northwest of Paris. I have now been there four times, and each time attempting to make images. The first visit, I attempted to make black and white images, primarily. The second, I gave in completely to color and by the third visit, I had found my own way into making images of this famous garden.
But the water lilies were still an issue. They really don’t make that interesting a photograph. They are largely a dull green against a greenish, brownish water.
A few years before, I had made a photograph of water lilies in a pond in Mississippi that I later noticed looked very like vintage photographs made at Monet’s water garden, where the water and its plants was just one element in an otherwise traditional landscape design.
Monet, however, was not making traditional landscapes. He was interested in something completely other. On a flat canvas, he was seeing into layers of distances: the water surface, the water underneath the surface and the reflection in the water of the sky, the clouds, and the trees surrounding the pond.
This, then, became my intent as I came back to Giverny and photographed once again the lily pond that Monet had created.
I found I could recreate a passable Monet imitation, but I’m not happy with doing that.
There were images that looked under the surface to find the tangle of roots underneath and bits of tree reflection and sky on the mirror interface of the water.
I made wider and wider images, like the cinemascope panels made by the painter.
And I found ways to mix the water lilies with the weeping willows.
But this was all pastiche. I enjoyed them, but they weren’t me. They were apprentice lessons. Do it his way first and then wander off on your own.
My own inclination is to find other ways of “complexifying” an image. I like a good tangle, I enjoy looking through one tangle at another.
So, I sought to mix the water lilies of Giverny with the plants, reflections and trees to show, not the mere patterns of lily pads
which would never approximate Monet’s luxurious colors, but rather to see what I could find for myself in the garden. Nature is prolific and extravagant, it seeks to fill the world in a green horror vacui.
I love seeing vegetable growth, the vines, the twigs, leaves, panicles, stalks and roots. And the gardens at Giverny overflow with sprouting, stretching and swelling.
In my several visits to Giverny, I have amassed a couple of thousand photographs. Many are duplicates or in poor focus, but there must be at least 1500 images that are printable and showable. Most are of the upper garden and the flowers there, not the lower garden with the water lilies.
But walking through Monet’s vision in the fall is a kind a paradise. I think of Milton’s Eve or Marvell’s “Garden,” or Wordsworth’s daffodils. A world alive; a world happy and bright; a world we can sometimes enter.
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