Category Archives: photography

getting real

Echium wildpretii growing wild in Tenerife

Grow this plant and your garden will look exactly like this! (Yah, right… )

[ Right: Image of Echium wildpretii by Mataparda. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. ]

I’ve got to be realistic, I keep telling myself. The plant may be cool, but the whole effect probably won’t be much like how the plants grow in the wild or how they’re shown on some dramatically illustrated garden website.

It’s like buying clothes out of a catalog that are being modeled someone impeccably styled and impossibly toned. But because of the recession most of us have had to let our personal stylists go, and when you go to try on the clothes the look ends up being a sad disappointment.

For my last post, on my blooming echiums, I was having a hard time coming up with an attractive photo that showed the entire plant. The plants are growing in a tight corner of the garden that has a woodpile, a rusty shed and a big disorderly stack of stuff waiting to be dissembled and taken to the metal recycling facility at the landfill–not stuff I wanted to publish out there for all the world to see.

From one vantage point the studio walls act as a fairly neutral backdrop, but to take this photo my back was against the neighbor’s wall and I couldn’t get the distance I wanted.

The angles that showed off the plants better also showed off all the junk. Gag.

Okay, back to getting real. My garden will never look like the high volcanic slopes of Tenerife. It’ll never look like the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, or approximate the wide vistas of our desert two hours to the east of here. Some of my plants may come from those places, but cultivating them won’t hide the fact that I live in a suburb with neighbors all around.

I guess I look at the garden as a scrapbook or photo album. A plant might have associations with somewhere I’ve been or would like to visit. Maybe I grew up with another of the plants. Yet another may be intriguingly cool even though I have no idea where it comes from. In arranging the plants, in making the garden, I can come up with something where my memories can mix with the shapes, colors and textures of the plants and produce something I like and hopefully will look okay to others.

Blooming now in one of my little bog gardens is a stream orchid, Epipactis gigantea, a plant with a huge pile of associations for me. (You can sort of make it out to the left in this photo.) Those memories go something like this: I was taking some of the rough Jeep roads in Saline Valley, a generally unvisited expanse of white sand immediately northwest of Death Valley. I’d camped one night on the west side of the valley at the mouth of a little canyon leading up into the Inyo Mountains. All night long I kept hearing angered challenges from the wild burros that called this area their home. The next morning I headed towards the canyon, keeping a wary eye on the burros that were never far away. Soon I started to hear water. I guess I’d unknowingly plopped myself on top of a trail leading to a water source for the burros–That would explain the angry noises all night.

Soon the canyon folded in around me, and I went from the glaring white hotness of the exposed valley floor to a cool, sheltered outdoor room. Water drizzled down a granite face in front of me. Ferns grew everywhere. And scarlet columbines. And dozens of this plant, the stream orchid, in peak bloom. Imagine that. Orchids in the desert. It was one of those peak outdoor moments that I’ll remember forever.

Well, the little bog garden looks and feels nothing like that May morning in Saline Valley, but seeing this little orchid will remind me of that encounter every time I see it.


This must be the year for my prima donna plants to finally decide to bloom. First it was the first bloom for me of the Agave attenuata over the winter. Now it’s this echium’s turn.

This is Echium wildpretii, which has gone from five feet tall two weeks ago to over seven and a half feet.

It’s also known by various common names, including tower of jewels, red bugloss, and–in Spanish–tajinaste. “Tajinaste”: what a gorgeous sounding name, way more musical than bugloss or “tower of jewels,” which sounds a little square to me, like a plant name from a 1927 seed catalog. Tajinaste is endemic to one Atlantic island, Tenirife, off the northern African coast.

This echium species is described as a biennial. Many plants described that way will put up leaves the first year and then bloom the second year from seed, after which the plants produce huge amounts of seed and then die.

Although it’s been known to flower in the second year, this plant’s usual interpretation of the term takes “biennual” literally as “two years,” keeping you waiting that long from sowing to flowering. And there’s one plant in the front yard that looks like it’s going to be taking an additional year. Biennial? I think not.

Still, worth the wait, don’t you think?

The plant grows in spirals. Here you can see the spiraling new flowers.

The central rosette of leaves just a few months before sending up the central bloom stalk.

During the two years you wait for it to bloom, you get to look at an attractive mound of lance-shaped coarse gray leaves, usually eighteen inches to twice that across during its second growing season. When nature withholds flowers you can always look at and photograph leaves. So here’s some of my little crop of Echium wildpretii plant photos.

Echium wildpretii leaves in soft focus

Some of the leaves develop these neat hook ends.

As you can see it’s an attractive plant even when out of bloom. It has low water requirements and looks clean until its final, spectacular exit. After a few months it turns from a big dramatic plant into a big dramatic dead plant with tendencies to topple even before its deep tap root decays.

Its reputation is that it’ll send seeds everywhere at that point, so this might not be the best plant if you live near the edge of a dry natural area. A related echium, pride of Madeira, (E. candicans) has established itself as a pest in some coastal areas of Southern California. I’ll get to see how bad it really is after these plants finally give out later this summer. I’ll worry about that later, but for now I’ll sit back and enjoy the plant.

unfurling datura

Only about five minutes elapsed between the first and second of these photos of the unfurling buds of sacred datura, Datura wrightii. I had no idea how quickly these things opened in the fading evening light as they get ready for their nighttime pollinators. Stand too close to these massive opening buds and you could almost get hurt!

There are times I’m sorry you can’t convey hover the internet how something smells. This is one of them. These massive eight to nine inch flowers can pump out so much scent every moth in the neighborhood comes for a visit. I usually think humans and insects don’t have an awful lot in common. But we definitely share an attraction to this flower’s amazing scent.

That’ll be the next photo project: setting up the tripod again in the dark, waiting for the moths, as I get intoxicated on the scent of the flowers…

an invite to my groupies and stalkers

I’m one of several artists in town who’ve been nominated for the San Diego Art Prize, an annual opportunity for long-established local artists to partner with newer emerging talent and hold a joint exhibition that will rocket everyone to fame and fortune–or at least that’s the idea behind it.

Even though I’ve been around town for a few years, I’ll be showing as “emerging talent” along with a dozen others who’ve been nominated by various artists and art professionals around town. The show is the speed dating exhibition, where the established artist can get to know the nominated artists and select their choice of the person they’d like to exhibit with. It’s also a chance for folks in town to take a look at our work.

I’ll be showing part of a photography-based installation that looks at the names people have given to features in the landscape, particularly to features that bear a resemblance to humans. Some of the names are fanciful and fun, others march pretty quickly into territory that’s pretty rude or offensive. Landscape photography that takes on issues of racism? Well, why not? (My recent blog post on culturally offensive plant names comes from the same place in my brain and deals with some of the same issues.)

James SOE NYUN. CADP1001: The Face in the Rock, Dana Point, California. Pigment print on board, 10 x 12 1/2 inches.

Here’s a recent image that’ll be in the show, one of the more fun ones, a formation up the coast at Dana Point.

James SOE NYUN. AZCNM0802: China Boy, Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona. Pigment print on board, 12 1/2 x 10 inches.

And then there’s this one from Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, one of the potentially more offensive ones. Although the name probably dates from the 1930s, when people thought a name like this was okay to use, the name still appears on signage to this day.

I did a post on this body of work a couple year ago [ here ] but this is the first time it will be exhibited.

The scoop:

New Contemporaries III runs Sat., April 24 – Sat., May 22, 2010
at Project X: Art, 320 S. Cedros Ave. Ste. 500 , Solana Beach, 92075
Exhibition hours: Tue – Friday 10 – 5, Saturday 11 – 4 pm
Opening Reception: Sat. April 24, 6 – 10 pm
Panel Discussion: Saturday, May 15 at 6 to 8 pm

Drop on by to the opening and introduce yourself if an Icelandic volcano isn’t getting in the way of your air travel!

bloom day–in 3d!

Get out your 3D glasses! Part of this Garden Bloggers Bloom Day posting comes to you in glorious 3D, inspired by the news that 3D television was the big news at the recent Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, and by past, current and future 3D movies (Avatar, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Alice in Wonderland).

This is one of my clones of Arctotis acaulis, which is just coming into bloom.

To view the 3D effect you’ll need a pair of glasses or a viewer that has a red lens over the left eye and a cyan (green works too) lens over the right. This image, what’s called an anaglyph, is pretty low-tech, more Black Lagoon than Avatar, but it works. I won’t detail all the steps for making it, but there are lots of explanations out on the web for how to do it in Photoshop. [ Here’s one. ] You can also use a good photo editor like Photoshop Elements that will let you adjust the individual color channels of the image.

You don’t need a proper 3D camera to photograph slow-moving subjects like flowers, but you’ll need two separate images, one for the left eye, and another for the right. Just take two images of the same subject, moving slightly left-to-right before you click the second image. If you have a camera with manual controls, you’ll get the best results if you focus and set the exposure manually.

This is the image pair I started with for the anaglyph above. You might even be able to view this raw pair in 3D. Some people are able to practice what’s called “free-viewing,” where the left eye focuses on the left image and the right eye on the right-hand one. You’ll eventually see three images, and the central one will suddenly pop into 3D.

This last pair shows the next-to-last step big step, before you layer the cyan image over the red one to create the final 3D image.

The rest of this post returns to stodgy old 2D. Sorry.

Winter is the big bloom season for many of the native plants, as well as for many plants adapted to Southern California’s mediterranean climate. Here are many of the plants flowering right now.

Here’s the agave I featured prominently in last month’s posting. It’s nearing its half-way point on the spike.

First blooms of the season on Verbena lilacina.

First blooms of the season on Nuttall’s milkvetch, Astragalus nuttallii.

The very first, brave bloom on another Arctotis acaulis clone, ‘Big Magenta.’

First flowering on another plant, likely Crassula multicava. The bed where this plant is will soon be covered with a dense mist of flowers for several months.

Another flowering crassula, Crassula ovata, your basic jade plant.

Black sage, Salvia mellifera, coming into bloom.

Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, Eriogonum arborescens, still blooming–the Energizer Bunny of buckwheats.

…some weird bromeliad. I have a likely name somewhere, but not stored in my brain’s RAM right now…

I was taking some pictures of this desert mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, but was more captivated by the interesting damage patterns created by a leaf-mining insect.

And last but not least: What I’m certain will be the last paperwhite narcissus of the season. I keep thinking that, but another clump pushes up through the earth and starts to flower. I’m not complaining.

As usual, my thanks Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day! Check out what’s in bloom in other gardens around the world [ here ].

If you haven’t had enough of the 3D photos, check out a much earlier 3D garden blog post [ here ].

Now enough of this 2D indoors nonsense. Open the door, and go outside and enjoy your garden in the grand glorious 3D it comes in naturally.

a visit to the l.a. county museum

Another quick stop over the holidays took the form of a visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installed at the new main entrance is this battalion of 202 antique streetlights, Urban Light, by artist Chris Burden. Streetlights like these of course were positioned at curbs in straight lines, spaced regularly. Clustering them together like this accentuates that fact, and to me makes the whole installation seem maybe just a little bit militaristic.

Arranged behind the Burden piece are some palm trees, the first plantings of what will be a large installation of palms by Robert Irwin. Irwin is the design force behind the Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum, but here the trees will read less like a separate garden than plantings integrated into the art and architecture.

Their trunks echo the posts of the streetlights, as does the fact that they’re planted in a regular pattern. Also, as with the streetlights, they’re a collection of different kinds. A press release states: “Along with the palms, Irwin’s other medium is Southern California’s light, and the species of palms have been specially chosen to gather and reflect the interplay of light and shadow native to L.A.” [ source ] I love Robert Irwin’s work [ here’s a sample ], and I’ll be checking back on this installation as time goes on.

The whole vertical shaft thing becomes a theme around the Museum’s latest building, the newish Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which has red exterior accents, including plenty of red columns.

The landscaping in this part of the museum is interesting in that it uses palms or flat plantings. Virtually no shrubs. It’s a pretty urban planting that in part seems designed to give the homeless no place to camp.

Most horizontal surfaces, using decomposed granite or this Turfstone product, are designed as walkable extensions of the concrete paving. Where does the landscape end and the urban fabric begin?

Here’s an interesting gardening aside: The Museums are located on the same big city block as the famed La Brea Tar Pits, where the ground oozes black, gummy tar, a substance that has preserved bones of sabertooth tigers and woolly mammoths from the last ice age that got too close to the stuff. Just imagine trying to garden where digging a hole to plant a shrub might put you in contact with the deadly sludge! I have yet to pick up a garden book that even begins to discuss what to do with this kind of soil problem. While the park containing the tar pits has a few gooey shoe-grabbing spots, these plantings seemed free of the muck.

My main reason for visiting LACMA was to take in a photo exhibit that reassembles many of the works that were seen in the seminal 1975 “New Topographics” exhibition of landscape photography. These works in the show signaled a break from the more romantic takes on what landscape photos ought to look like and engaged a land where the human presence reigned supreme.

One of my favorite photographers in the show, Robert Adams, often combines the romantic sublime with a cooler take on what the world really looks like. To the left is “Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado” from 1973 [ source ], a great example of what his eye sees. You get the sense in his work that the human landscape often fails to live up to the stunning geography where it’s sited.

Seeing his work again prompted me to reread some of his Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. (From this photo you can see that he takes “traditional values” pretty broadly.) Here’s a quick snippet gardeners and landscape designers might like to think about.

Not surprisingly, many photographers have loved gardens, those places that Leonard Woolf once described as “the last refuge of disillusion.” Gardens are in fact strikingly like landscape pictures, sanctuaries not from but of truth.

–from the essay, “Truth and Landscape” in Beauty in Photography

In parting, let me move from beauty in photography to beauty in art. Here’s a closeup of Urban Light, backlit by the afternoon sun:

(For another example of Burden’s work, check out the installation of 50,000 nickel coins and 50,000 matchsticks that the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art exhibited: The Reason for the Neutron Bomb.)

one way to photograph a tree

Photographing a tree can present some challenges. You can walk around it to select the best angle, or pick a time of day with the best lighting conditions, but you still have to deal with the fact that the tree stays rooted in its spot and that the background behind the tree may be an unsightly or incomprehensible mess.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #8

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #8, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

Last year I ran across the work of Korean photographer Myoung-Ho Lee, whose photos of trees present an elegant–and spectacularly not practical–solution to this problem of background. He just brings a plain background with him and stands it up behind the tree. If you figure that the trees in the photos are at least 25 feet tall, you get a sense of how huge the background sheet has to be.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #13

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #13, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

Some of the photos have just the tree isolated against the plain background. Others show the tree and background in the larger context of the landscape where the tree is growing.

The results are pretty amazing, and create photos that are rich with suggestion and ideas about photography.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #11

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #11, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

You might be driven to think about the fact that to photograph something in the wilds is to select it. Although this act of selecting the tree isn’t really digging the thing up from nature, it’s still bringing something from the wilds indoors onto a wall. That might make you think that photography–and much of art–is finding something interesting interesting in the world and bringing it into a gallery.

You also might think that looking at a photograph of something might tell you something about how the thing in the photo looks, but very little about its context or meaning.

And you might even think of Marcel Duchamp displaying a signed urinal in an exhibition, with the basic premise that if an artist calls something art, it’s art.

Myoung-Ho Lee Tree #12

Myoung-Ho Lee. Tree #12, archival InkJet print. [ source ]

None of those thoughts are “right answers,” and you will probably have other thoughts of your own. I think you’ll agree, however, that these are some of the more striking photographs of trees that have ever been taken.

art from the garden

I started this blog because I was feeling that I was entering a bit of an imposed artistic hiatus. Kodak had stopped producing the specialized film I used for most of my photography, and I’d bought the last of the old stock of it that people had to sell on eBay.

I enjoy gardening at least as much as art-making. Also, the idea of a garden plays with the same kinds of ideas that I was interested in when I did my art, stuff like the edges between human culture and nature, and the environmental costs of human habitation. The idea of a garden blog seemed like it could keep me thinking about some ideas that interested me. And it might push the some of the same creative buttons that photography did.


(Left: James SOE NYUN. Calla Lily Dissection II, 1997. Pigment print, ca. 13 x 19 inches.)

Maybe the blog has functioned too well to keep me out of the studio. But I’ve been reprinting at some of the garden-based photography I did in the past and seeing how it might point in new directions.

Recently I was invited to show of my older work at a small gallery in Escondido, in northern San Diego County. The show is Eyesight is Insight / Art + Science, and is curated by Ruth West and Sarach Attwood. The show opened yesterday, and remains up through July 3 at the Escondido Arts Partnership Municipal Gallery. These are a couple of the works in the show, images from my Destructive Testing Series, a small group of works where I use plant materials from the garden in little science experiments.


(Left: James SOE NYUN. Fig Leaf Flammability Test 6b, 2000. Pigment print, ca. 19 x 15 3/4 inches.)

In addition to reprinting some fo the older work, I’ve actually been doing a little bit of work looking at gardening. I’ll share some of it here once I get to something I’m willing to show the world.

In the meantime, I’m happy to share some of this older work. Stop by the show if you’re in the headed for Escondido!

plants in black and white

In a world where color photographs are easy to come by it can be refreshing to stand back and look at images where the color has been simplified down to tones of black, white and gray.

Edwin Hale Lincoln (1848–1938) compiled his massive series, Wildflowers of New England, Photographed from Nature, in the early part of the 20th century. The photos are warm-toned platinum prints where the plants form decorative patterns. You can tell that the photographer was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and many of the photos could serve as templates for carved decorations on a piece of furniture.

Convolvulus Septium, Hedge Bindweed, Morning-GloryLeft: Edwin Hale Lincoln. Convolvulus Septium, Hedge Bindweed, Morning-Glory, plate 124 from Wildflowers of New England, Photographed from Nature, Volume V, 1904. [ photo from the de Young Museum, which had an exhibition on Lincoln last year ]

Acorus Calamus, Flag-Root, Sweet Flag, Calamus-RootLeft: Edwin Hale Lincoln. Acorus Calamus, Flag-Root, Sweet Flag, Calamus-Root, 1914. [ image from Alan Klotz Gallery, which will be featuring Lincoln’s work in a show that runs from May 7th to July 2nd ]

Different from Lincoln’s work are the later photographs of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). His 1928 Urformen der Kunst, published in the 1929 English edition, Art Forms in Nature, features 120 beautifully grainy photogravures. (Soulcatcher Studio has the entire volume online.) Blossfeldt followed up the book with a second volume in 1932.

Blossfeldt, like Lincoln, came out of an arts and crafts orientation, in his case, that of ornamental metalwork. But Blossfeldt moved in closer to his plants, often showing them in extreme magnification. He didn’t claim to be a scientist, and instead was looking at nature for the ultimate inspiration for human art.

(BTW, If you happen upon reruns of the TV show Will and Grace, take a look at Will’s apartment, and you’ll see several framed Blossfeldts prints on the set.)

Blossfeldt closeups

Karl Blossfeldt. Sanguisorba, swallowwort, from Urformen der Kunst, 1928. [ image from the Wikimedia Commons ]

Karl BLossfeldt: Monkshood

Karl Blossfeldt. Monkshood, from Urformen der Kunst, 1928. [ image from the Wikimedia Commons ]

But that’s barely scratching the surface. Check out Edward Weston’s stunning, almost lewd Cabbage Leaf. Or Imogen Cunningham’s Magnolia. Or one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s calla lilies.

Or next time you go out into your garden to photograph a plant, put your camera in black in white mode, and notice the things you start to pay attention to once the color isn’t there as a distraction…

camera oops

Have you ever made a mistake while using a camera and ended up liking the “bad” photo best?

I had borrowed John’s digital point and shoot and had aimed the thing at one of the local native plants, a blooming bush poppy, Dendromecon rigida. The camera took forever to focus, and I thought it’d done its thing. But the flash went off as I was moving to put the camera back in my pocket.


The resulting photo combines a blurred rendition of the plant and mulch with just a little bit of subject matter frozen in place by the flash. It’s nothing you’d use to identify the plant, but I like it as a photo…