Tim Nighswander's photography does much more than merely capture the beauty of a flower. It compels us to stop, to look deeper, to spend time and notice each small detail of a flower's lifecycle--from life to death. Through his work, Nighswander reveals to us that each stage of life, each small change, has an infinite amount of unique detail and beauty. With each petal that falls, a new composition. A photo is born through each bloom, each decay. In this in-depth interview, learn about Nighswander's fascinating journey from studying photojournalism, to photographing Matisse and Renoir paintings, to where he is today.
My goal as a photographer is to remain open to seeing beyond the obvious. Sight uses a tremendous amount of our mental capacity – so as a way to conserve resources our brain takes shortcuts. All but a small fraction of what we are exposed to every waking hour of every day is ignored and discarded because the bombardment of visual stimulus forces us to block out and ignore that which is not deemed relevant or important to our routine. 'Seeing' - beyond what is necessary to navigate our daily lives - needs to be a conscious act. Photography trains me to 'see', to be aware of my surroundings: to seek out the unique, the accidental juxtapositions, small gestures, everyday abstractions and fleeting moments that would otherwise be ignored and lost forever.
Photography by its very nature takes life out of context. By putting a frame around a scene or object it is giving a directive to the viewer to “look here!” In so doing it is implied that the image has meaning and purpose – that this moment in the continuum of time is worth preserving. At the same time the viewer is given no information as to what is outside the boundaries of the image – a whole world that is to be ignored or imagined. The photographer, by the decisions made in framing, composition, lighting and focus has made those things unknown and unknowable. This conscious act of inclusion and exclusion is essential to the interpretation of the photograph.
What initially drew you to photography? What was the journey like leading up to your decision to dedicate your life to it?
In college I was working as a reporter for a local daily newspaper and planning to get a degree in journalism. When I took the required Photography 101 class, it was my first experience using anything other than a simple box camera and I was instantly hooked. Working at the newspaper gave me 24-hour access to a darkroom and the opportunity to see my news and feature photographs published. I was excited by the ability to visually express ideas, tell stories, and capture moments. I think I knew then that photography would always play a part in my career though I did not know what form that would take. By the last semester of my senior year, I changed my major and graduated with a BS in Photojournalism.
After college, I spent three years in the Peace Corps in Libera — taking pictures there and around West Africa — followed by photographing my way through Europe. Upon returning to the US, I entered graduate school, concentrating entirely on photography. The university at that time had a very good art and photography faculty, but the photography classes were only offered through the journalism school. As a result, many art students also interested in photography were in my classes. That led to friendships and interactions that opened my eyes to the possibilities that existed outside of straight 'reportage.' Out of graduate school, rather than follow the photojournalism route, I got a job as a photographer in a commercial studio shooting for advertising and annual reports. While college had given me a good foundation in photography, it was my own desire to grow as a photographer, along with the day-to-day pressure of deadlines and client approvals, that really honed my skills. A few years later I moved from my native Ohio to Connecticut where I opened my own studio. Photography has remained my career ever since.
Over the years, I have made the transition from film to digital and have faced the challenges of owning my own business — weathering the changes in the marketplace, the ups and downs of the economy, and a pandemic. I have seen a revolution in how photographs are made and what photography can be. The path hasn't always been easy but staying flexible and open to learning new technology has allowed me to adapt. Where I have ended up as a photographer is far different from what I might have imagined as a student, but the journey has always been an adventure.
What keeps bringing you back to photographing flora again and again?
I grew up in a rural area and spent a lot of time taking long walks by myself, enjoying the small details in nature. The lake and river near my house were laboratories for observation and I would spend hours watching insects skimming the surface of the water, turning over rocks to see what creature might scurry away or wandering down poison ivy lined wooded paths.
The only actual art class I ever took was as a young teen. An assignment I specifically remember was to make a painting where you imagine yourself as either giant or tiny. Almost everyone in the class chose to be powerful giants, but I created a world where I was surrounded by enormous plants and insects. So I guess a part of me has always been fascinated by the micro world. Looking back at my career in photography, I can see continuum of many images — some taken when I was in my early 20's — that use the camera to enlarge this tiny world and make it accessible. Whether in the field or in the studio, these are often close examinations of an isolated subject — studies of light, line, color, and form. The photographs I make today are direct descendants of these earlier images.
Because they are endlessly variable, flowers are a perfect vehicle for the continuation of this exploration. As a species we are drawn to flowers — not only for their beauty and scent but also because they are fragile and ephemeral. Although I don't delve into the centuries of symbolic and mythical meaning ascribed to flowers, it is impossible not to acknowledge how they can emulate the human experience. They emerge, grow, mature, reproduce, and die in a lifespan that we can easily observe — one that can be measured in days instead of years. We anthropomorphize and see them mirror our own personalities and moods. They can be seen to reflect the full range of human emotion — from joy and exuberance to melancholy and sorrow.
I find the lifecycle of a flower incredibly compelling. Is there a specific time in a flowers life in which you typically capture it? Or do you photograph flowers throughout different life stages?
Sometimes I can't help but be seduced into photographing a perfect flower in the prime of its existence. What's not to like? But while it takes skill and patience to compose and light such a shot, the end result is an image of a beautiful flower that looks more or less like every other flower of the same type. I don't mean to be dismissive of these kinds of photographs and it's not to say these images can't be stunning or worthwhile, but in the end one pink tulip looks pretty much like every other pink tulip. A rose is a rose.
What I find more visually interesting is what happens when the flower starts to age. Petals become translucent, they shrivel and contort, colors fade and change, inner secrets are exposed, and the whole character of the flower is transformed. There is a transitory stage where each bloom becomes something that is totally unique — unlike any flower that has come before or any that will ever be seen again. What happens is unpredictable and fleeting — the results can be serendipitous and surprising. There is no way for me to know when, or if, the flower will reach a point where I feel it will make a compelling image. I can only wait and watch. Having to accept that I am not fully in control is part of the process! If I am not ready when the 'moment' arrives, I miss the shot. I have had pedals that I thought essential to the composition fall off as I was shooting and ruin the shot or, conversely, open the opportunity for a better image.
I have in several instances followed a single flower through its full lifecycle. This can take several weeks to play out in the studio and there is no way of knowing at the outset if the end results will be worth while. When it does work, however, it is amazing to follow the full timespan — from a fresh bud to a faded flower — and see how at each stage there are beautiful images to be made.
Because of the subject matter of your work, I have to ask – are you a gardener? Is there a personal or family history of botany, gardening or generally working with plants?
I enjoy flowers but I am not a gardener. In shooting these images I have learned a lot about the structure of flowers — not in the textbook sense, but from close observation. I have a rudimentary knowledge of botany but that is the extent of my background.
Importantly though, I am not interested in photographing flowers as horticultural specimens or scientific samples. For me, these images are about gesture, abstraction, and metaphor and require no knowledge of the biology behind them. They are about seeing beyond the surface to find some deeper personal meaning. That is the reason that, with a few exceptions, I use the most simple name possible for the images: a generic description followed by the numbering from the camera's automatic sequencing. I don't want to impose my interpretation by giving names like 'Dancing Tulip' or 'Sad Lily.' Dictating what I see in the image is not the intent. Instead, I want the viewer to come away with their own understanding. If they see something totally different than I do, that's fantastic — it means they are engaged and looking!
There's a long history of botanical still lives in in art. Are there any traditional and/or contemporary artists that have inspired you?
In that long history there are many people — and individual images — that come to mind. Given the time in which they were created and even though they were not made with the intention of being 'art,' Karl Blossfeldt's botanical studies are stunning. Among other photographers, I think of Andre Kertesz's Melancholic Tulip or the wonderful flower photographs of Imogen Cunningham and of course Robert Mapplethorpe. But the two artists to whom I feel most closely aligned for these works are photographer Irving Penn and painter Georgia O'Keeffe.
Penn was a master studio photographer who created some of the most iconic fashion photographs of the 20th century for Vogue magazine. He used those same skills — and an 8” x 10” camera — to make large scale images of not always perfect flowers. Initially published in Vogue and widely exhibited, these are single flowers, lusciously lit and shot on a stark white background. Although I have not seen these photographs for many years, this Christmas my wife gave me a copy of his 1980 book Flowers. In the introduction to the book he acknowledged that he had no special knowledge of horticulture and, like me, did not want “to be tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection.” Revisiting these images it is clear they have remained in my subconscious as inspiration.
I have always admired and been drawn to O'Keeffe's paintings. Through our Imaging4Art business, my wife, Diane, and I had the incredible privilege of photographing the entire fine art collection of The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2020. Working closely with her paintings and alongside a staff dedicated to the study of her life and preservation of her work gave me a much deeper appreciation and understanding of her and her art. Her work is about close observation and, like O’Keeffe, I want my images to be so arresting that the viewer is compelled to take the time to stop and look. It is also impossible not to acknowledge how both O'Keeffe's flower paintings and many of these photographs can be seen as quite erotic!
Can you tell me a bit about Imaging4Art? What is its goal and mission?
The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, located in nearby Bethany, CT, has been a client for many years — with me at first shooting much of their collection on film. In the early 2000’s, I felt that the capability of digital technology had begun to equal or surpass that of large format film. Working with the Foundation, I designed and initiated a comprehensive program to digitally photograph their entire collection. This multi-year project was partially funded by Artstor, an organization whose mission is to create a digital database of art images for education and research. Through Artstor I was put in touch with The Barnes Foundation (then in Merion, PA) initially only to photograph Henri Matisse's The Joy of Life, which was being de-installed for evaluation and conservation. That evolved into another multi-year project to not only photograph the entire painting and drawing collection of the Barnes but also to document every wall of every room — first in Marion and then again when the Foundation moved to downtown Philadelphia.
Because of these experiences I had the revelation that although larger institutions were embarking on digitization projects there were many museums, galleries and foundations that didn't want, or couldn't justify, a full-time staff or studio. In order to fill that need, Diane and I decided to start Imaging4Art (imaging4art.com) — committing my entire commercial photography business to filling that niche.
From the outset we have operated as a traveling studio, bringing the skills and equipment necessary to offer museum quality digital services at our clients' location. Whether photographing a single work or an entire collection, we adapt our setup to shoot in studios, galleries, art storage facilities, or collectors homes. Since its founding in 2008, Imaging4Art has had the opportunity to work with some of the most prominent museums and galleries not just in New York and the northeast but throughout the US and Europe. It has been an amazing experience. We have had unprecedented access to artwork ranging from the work of Renaissance masters to pieces by some of today's most recognized contemporary artists — all while working alongside, and learning from, some of the top art historians, curators, and conservators in the art world.
Your body of work focuses so much on small, delicate details – forcing your viewers to look slow and intentionally. Is this deliberate?
O'Keeffe has a quote that speaks to this: “Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time.” So like O’Keeffe, the decision to focus on small delicate details is indeed very intentional — to direct the viewer to take the time to 'see.' More than just deliberate, I would say that it is a prime directive of these works!
In hindsight, I realize that the first of this series was shot as a 35mm transparency many decades ago when a vase of cut irises in my studio was ready to be thrown out. Instead of dead flowers, I saw the delicate twisted petals and dangling stamen as an intricate sculpture (Iris #1 and #2 for anyone who visits my website). I was captivated by the image and intrigued by the potential but set it aside for many years — I think in part because I didn't feel that what I recorded on film captured the full impact of what I saw. Fast forward to today and I have access to the camera, lighting, computers, software, and other equipment I use for my business. Taking advantage of this state-of-the-art technology has opened possibilities that didn't exist before and allowing me to take this exploration to a new level. I can now create images with near microscopic detail which, when printed up to 44”x62”, invites viewers to experience the intimate and unexpected details each flower offers. Seeing a subject isolated and in such great detail can be transformative. It allows the viewer to become immersed in the world of my childhood imagination. While these photographs appear straight forward, they are actually the result of a labor intensive process. This is a perfect example of what photographers mean when they say that in the studio you work hard to make it look simple. It begins with selecting the right viewpoint, precisely adjusting exposure and lighting ,and then shooting many exposures. The multiple images are then layered and blended — controlling what is, and is not, in focus. Finally, I do all of my own printing which gives me further control over the end product. The goal is not to alter or manipulate the subject but to enhance what I see and direct the eye of the viewer.
How can viewers engage with your work, whether it be virtually or in person?
To get the full impact of these large scale works, they are ideally seen in person. Carol Corey Fine Art (carolcoreyfineart.com) in Kent, Connecticut and Elisa Contemporary Art (elisacontemporaryart.com) at her Fairfield, Connecticut salon have select works available to view. Through these galleries I have works available on 1st Dibs, Artsy, and the Affordable Art Fair. When any of my pieces are exhibited, I promote the venue on Instagram (@timnighswander).
My website (timnighswander.com) shows the full range of this series. It is frequently updated with new works and visiting the website on a computer instead of a phone gives a better opportunity to appreciate the scale and detail of the images. The website also is the best way to contact me directly with questions and inquiries.