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The Secret Life of Plants

Botany occupies a peculiar position in the history of human knowledge. For eons it was the one field in which humankind had anything more than the vaguest of insights. Tropical cultures survived for millennia by utilizing the magical properties of flora -- an ability that has been largely lost in our technological society. Much of humanity now holds only a piecemeal conception of the ecosystem that sustains it. The more civilized we become, the further we are removed from direct contact with plants, and the more indistinct our knowledge of botany grows. When a culture imbues all of nature with powerful properties, a world of discovery is possible, perhaps even a world of magic. Crude and imperfect, magic was our first conscious abstraction from nature, our first attempt to link disparate objects through some unseen attraction between them.

Anyone who has a hard time imagining today the overlay of mystical, allegorical and mythical interpretations of nature should look closely at Hiram Butler Gallery's provocative exhibition of botanical photographs. Drawn from a show organized by the Julie Saul Gallery in New York and augmented with a rotating component of works by local artists (currently Virgil Grotfeldt), the survey -- which ranges from mid-19th-century experimental photographic engravings and early 20th-century vintage prints to contemporary color photograms -- entices us to rediscover the mixture of wonder and scientific inquiry. In these photographs of plant life and the light that nourishes that life, the attitude toward both nature and the photographic medium is reverent, at times even mystical. There is a spiritual cast to many of the images, a distinct appetite for the pure and the absolute. The result is a kind of visual allegory on the nature of art and its relation to the nature of plants. And one thing this allegory tells us is that any object in nature that is made into an object of contemplation has the power to affect us as an object of art. Within each scientist and artist exists a curious mixture of science and aesthetics, truth and illusion, fact and fiction.

The botanical images at Butler Gallery inhabit a place between enigma and science. Petals, analogues of sexual organs, wrap around protruding tongue-like spadices. Stems, roots and pistils suggest embryology and reproductive processes in images of delicate radiance. But "nature" in photography is not the nature of nature; it is the "nature" of art -- made in the act of observation and the mystery of response. It is fixed and finite, something that nature can never be. Neither an improvement on nor a diminution of actual nature, nature-captured-as-art is something separate and parallel -- an aesthetic correlative that gives form to an emotion.

This particular collection of botanicals offers a dialogue between photographers who adhered to the scientific point of view and those attracted to more aesthetic investigations. The show begins with a fragile image of a single fern by William Henry Fox Talbot, who not only invented the negative/positive process that was the forerunner of modern photographic materials, but also produced the first books to be illustrated with photographs. Alongside are examples from the Hatton Fern Album, a mid-19th-century homage to the era's abiding passion for ferns. The collection belonged to amateur botanist John Hatton, curator of the spa at Bath, and includes a combination of early cyanotypes and nature prints, as well as original plant studies. The quiet, simple harmony of the ferns is beguiling, no matter how distant we may feel from the stuffy era in which they were produced. One still senses their presence and life force in the gallery, even though the purpose of the album was to clinically categorize the botanicals.

Taken as a whole, these 19th-century botanicals suggest erotic forms of repressed emotion, forced restraint and obsession. Note, in the cyanotype photograms by Bertha Jaques, how light creates hauntingly arousing images of thick-stemmed flowers and blossoms on a dreamy Prussian blue ground. Jaques, a founding member of the Chicago Etcher's Society, placed her specimens on transparent, light-sensitive paper and exposed the sheets to create negatives without using a camera. Jaques imbued her ghostly images with the turn-of-the-century spirit of art for art's sake. Plant Study, Indian Grass features a thick vertical shaft of weed with wiry filaments that carry one's eye back into the blue expanse. Tall Blue Lettuce is an animated display of spiky leaves and ephemeral dandelion particles churning around the stem.

In the 1920s, a new breed of photographer in tune with the very successful world of German technology and Germany's turbulent political situation overturned many of the major traditions of the medium. They fostered a new approach to photography: as a medium to examine such diverse things as biological specimens and the influence of Freud and the world of dreams. Albert Renger-Patzch set forth the view that everything in the world is beautiful, and one need only open one's eyes to the marvelous designs of people and nature. The visionary Ernst Fuhrmann was obsessed by the idea that the seemingly impenetrable maze of new knowledge about nature's patterns could be put in order by a camera. Fuhrmann's aim was to relate art objects to natural objects and to compare botany with zoology. Like his predecessors, Fuhrmann felt that plants could be structurally compared with animals. A 1930 botanical photo shows a slimy, alien form -- both beautiful and repellent -- curled up like a creature, or an intestine with nodules.

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