‘Dahlia, Victoria Ann’, 2011, by Kenji Toma
In Lords and Ladies, by the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Granny Weatherwax says of a fake crown in a theatrical performance somewhat resembling the Scottish play, ‘ Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things. Well-known fact.’ A representation of a dahlia can, stripped of all context and presented like this, look more like a dahlia than a dahlia.
According to Kehrer Verlag, the publishers of The Most Beautiful
Flowers (ISBN 978-3-86828-789-9), Kenji Toma’s pictures are an ‘ homage to the botanical illustrations in Choix des
plus belles fleurs by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, one of the most well-regarded flower encyclopedias of the 19th century.’ Well, all right, well done Pierre-Joseph; but I find it even more fascinating how Toma recreates delicate watercolour illustrations using photography.
The answer, as is almost invariably the case in photography, is that there are probably several routes to the same end. But what if you are sufficiently inspired (as I am) to try to repeat the trick? Here are a few ideas, but they may not all work and you’ll need a lot of practice before you are as good as Toma.
Background, exposure, contrast
First, there is the off-white background. Not only does this remind us of the ageing paper of a 19th-century tome, it also serves as a useful foil to the brilliant white of the petals. Second, exposure is generous – there are no murky, underexposed areas. Third, there is quite high contrast and saturation. The whites of the petals on the left (though not on the right) are ‘ blown’ to featureless highlights. It doesn’t matter, though, because they are edged by that spectacular crimson-pink, and in some cases with shadow as well. Fourth, there’s a lot of grainy texture. This suggests a well-considered approach to resolution and sharpening.
Personally, I’d try high dynamic range (HDR), compressing the mid-tones in order to see into the shadows as well as giving reasonable highlight definition. Of course, it is possible (and even commonplace) to overdo HDR to the point where the picture appears unnatural. But what if the picture is supposed to appear unnatural? What is ‘unnatural’, after all? Hyperrealism is a well-known technique in painting, especially in airbrush painting. We’re straight back to things that look like things often looking more like things than things.
In other words, ‘realism’ in photography is a flexible concept. In reportage, it might be wobbly colours (or black & white) and big grain. In portraiture, it might be anything from 1940s Hollywood soft focus and retouching to the Taylor Wessing Depressed Teenager of the Year Award. Until we ask what ‘realism’ means, we cannot attempt to achieve it.
‘The off-white background serves as a useful foil to the brilliant white of the petals’