A BOTANIST’S BEST
KAREN ISHIGURO SHARES WITH REBECCA FROGLEY HOW HER ENDURING PERSONAL PROJECT, HANA, HAS ALLOWED HER CREATIVITY TO BLOSSOM
For decades, flowers have inspired people as symbols of femininity, of beauty, and of grace. And that’s especially so for artists, though not all artists’ flowers are the same — as a brief glance at Luc Tuymans’ Orchid, Monet’s Water Lilies, Helmut Newton’s bouquets, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s
Red Canna will illustrate. This same floral inspiration has prompted another artist to flower — Karen Ishiguro, whose enduring personal project,
HANA, builds on a rich and varied history of artists depicting flora.
In this ongoing photo series, Ishiguro’s talent for capturing images of feminine beauty in the studio combines with a fresh enthusiasm for floral arrangements. Delicate blossoms — from calla lilies and chrysanthemums to lavender and roses — adorn her sitters in a series of sensual black-and-white portraits.
The concept for the personal project in its infancy was featured by The Photographer’s Mail back in 2014. The idea grew out of a spontaneous moment and was unearthed by a decision to collaborate. Ishiguro was doing a test shoot with a model when she had the idea of inviting her friend, a florist, to participate. After some advice on how a calla lily might be manipulated to bend around the curve of the model’s neck, the project began to bloom.
“It was only meant to be a one-off shoot,” Ishiguro shares. “But, as soon as I was done, I realized I could do so much more with so many different other flowers and models. It made me really excited to see how far I could go.”
Shooting with a Broncolor Para 220 reflector umbrella coupled with a Scoro, Ishiguro positions the light from behind, allowing it to cast across the scene evenly, and veil her subject’s features in a soft, even light. In a set-up that would seem pared-back to most, Ishiguro simply works between 85mm and 50mm Nikkor f/1.4 lenses, mounted upon her trusted Nikon D800 body.
From the very first shot, Ishiguro was intrigued by the idea of shooting beautiful women with flowers, highlighted in soft light, as sensual, emotive portraits. Though the works centre on what’s often defined as the ‘traditionally’ feminine, it’s not a
tone that Ishiguro intentionally adds to the work. The graceful energy that encompasses each image is something that comes about naturally — perhaps, in part, as the expression of her own temperament.
“I don’t really think about making an image more ‘feminine’, which I am grateful for,” Ishiguro says. “I think my entire body of work can be summed up as a celebration of femininity. Not just in the sense of ‘women’ but the softness and gentleness the word carries.”
“Everyone and anything can be feminine,” she adds.
Elegance and grace are apparent in all Ishiguro’s aesthetic decisions, including her compositional choices. The images see botanicals effortlessly reflect the unique features of her sitters, while her sitters, in turn, reflect the delicate and joyful attributes of the respective flower variety. Each enhances the other with a simplicity seldom seen. In the monochrome works, the gentle curve of the lily’s stem mirrors the contour of the subject’s neck; long stems of lavender entangle another’s cascade of hair; and fine rosebuds frame a face, intensifying the subject’s piercing stare.
“The way it bends, shapes and moves in the wind …,” Ishiguro muses, “all of these things are important to me.”
Ishiguro achieves this sense of effortless elegance by allowing her shoot to develop in a spontaneous, and organic way. She never has her mind set on an imagined outcome, and her shooting style allows herself to remain open to others’ input.
“I don’t think about the flowers or the model until I am on set and ready to go,” she explains. “Sometimes, having a detailed plan doesn’t allow you to freely think of new ideas. You’re essentially stuck with this plan. I hate that. I like collaboration, a
coming-together-ness of things. I like that perhaps the model might suggest putting the flower in her hair, or that she suggests sticking the stem onto her collarbone so that it hangs off from behind her.
“In that respect, I like to think I am best portraying the girl and flower in the most natural form. Thus, enhancing each other’s beauty.”
But beauty doesn’t just run surface deep — and Ishiguro’s images aren’t only about the pairing of two pretty things. Keenly interested in the symbolism behind each botanical, and its origins, she considers the connotations of each variety before pairing a flower with its muse. This interest in the meaning of flowers so prevalent within the work is alluded to within the series’ title — HANA — a Japanese word, the English equivalent being ‘flower’.
“I like to learn about the flowers that I am shooting, as I find it interesting to see where it originated,” says Ishiguro.
“I’m also interested in flowers that may not usually get a mention in a traditional sense. I always like supporting the underdog. I was secretly cringing a bit when I shot the rose, because I think it’s so old and typical now — ‘Oh, you’re doing a flower shoot, and you shot a rose? Of course you are.’ I want to keep shooting interesting flowers as much as possible.”
With their light-hearted transferral of symbolic meanings, the photographs remind of Gertrude Stein’s quasi-quotation, ‘rose is a rose is a rose’. With each iteration of the word, and with each depiction of the flower, new meanings and associations are expressed.
The treatment is so simple and joyful that it almost appears to claim, ‘sometimes a flower is just a flower’. To this, I suspect Ishiguro would reply, ‘Is it?’ Follow HANA, as it continues to evolve, at karenishiguro.com.