Flowers have always been a popular subject for artists. However, while most are attracted to the color, vibrancy, and symmetry of nature’s bounty, Libby Ellis, in her most recent series of photographs, has chosen to show viewers a simpler, less ostentatious side of flowers. Shooting blooms in black and white, with all of their imperfections in evidence and stripped of the glamour that tends to define their beauty, Ellis’ endeavor has been to display the essence of her subjects.
The result of the photographer’s very intimate exploration of flowers — grown either in her own garden or locally — is on view at the Carnegie in Edgartown through Nov. 7 in a solo show titled “Joyful Participation in a World of Sorrows.”
Entering the small gallery off the main exhibition space on the lower level, one finds a tranquil retreat from the distractions of the outside world, one in which the viewer can quietly contemplate the images. Against spare white walls hang 10 images — all in the same square shape and all framed in white. In black-and-white, each petal, tendril, stamen, and stem — even the tiny hairs on the stem of a poppy — stand out in stark relief against the white studio background.
It’s not perfection that Ellis is seeking. It’s personality. A crumpled tulip bows its head and spills forth its petals to display their scalloped edges. A wild carrot bloom is shown from the angle of its underbelly, with its spiky leaves in sharp focus and the tiny white flowers shooting outward and upward like wind-borne spiders. A peony is shot to spotlight its bristly center bulb nestling amid flowing petals. It’s the unexpected that draws one in, like a tiny snail on the stem of a musk rose.
“When I forage, there might be one bloom that really speaks to me,” says the photographer. “For whatever reason I fall in love with it. Oftentimes it’s the underdog in the garden.
“Each flower has its own essence. I take it as it is. I really like the tears and the rumples. it reflects our culture, our humanity.”
Ellis explains that she uses only natural light, and never manipulates the images. “I photograph them as they are. I’m interested in showing my subjects in as natural a way as possible. To me that seems authentic.”
The photographer uses only locally grown, never store-bought, flowers as subjects that she refers to as “in season and in place.” She describes her pursuit as being in accordance with “the slow flower movement.”
“I’m interested in photographing flowers that I can begin the relationship with while they’re still planted in the ground,” she says. “Then I ‘florage’ them and bring them into the studio. I live with them and then I photograph them. I feel like that’s my responsibility. I’m just getting out of the way to deliver the image. I feel like I’m in service to them. ”
In her artist statement, Ellis writes, “Staying in season, in time and place with the flowers, deepens my intimacy with the local rhythms of the natural world. Working in black-and-white invites form to reveal itself without the demand, or overwhelming, of color. For me, the warm tonalities slow the gaze and calm the body, making space for restorative energy.”
It was while recovering from a minor brain injury sustained during a car accident that Ellis found herself really observing the world around her in a closer, more intimate way. “When I came out from my cocoon and started walking the neighborhood, I found that when you have to move slowly, you notice more things,” she says. “I’ve had so many illnesses or injuries that have taken me off the fast pace that our society is moving in. I think that gives me compassion for the broken petals, the not perfect.”
In expounding on the title of the show in her artist’s statement, Ellis writes, “Even in this year of global crises, nature arranges itself to offer moments of beauty amid chaos.”
Libby Ellis’ “Joyful Participation in a World of Sorrows,” through Nov. 7 at the Carnegie, 58 North Water St., Edgartown. Vineyard Trust and Polly Hill Arboretum invite you to join Barbara Dacey in conversation with Libby Ellis for a lively discussion on life, art, and nature. Thursday, Oct. 29, at 4 pm. RSVP and to register for this Zoom event email firstname.lastname@example.org.