Tag Archives: James SOE NYUN

beautiful decay

Here’s another recently completed image in my Destructive Testing series, “Comparative Wilt Test.”

James SOE NYUN: Comparative Wilt Test

James SOE NYUN: Comparative Wilt Test: Oenothera, Osteospermum, Oxalis. Digital pigment print, 16 x 20 inches.

The original photos were taken in the late 90s, and my original intention was to print them sequentially so that you could see the wilting in process. I tried that, but then decided it wasn’t interesting enough. Recently I decided to revisit some of the negatives using Photoshop. I ended up superimposing five of the original images and used different kinds and degrees of transparency for each layer. I like this result much better, though I could also see this turning into a stop-motion video at some point.

The image memorializes a pseudo-science experiment I conducted to see how three different flowering plants would behave when cut off the mother plant, lashed to some supports, then allowed to wilt over the course of several days. The victims in this case are three plants in the garden I was having some ill feelings towards: Mexican evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa), freeway daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum), and Bermuda buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae).

My primrose problems went back to a packet of “wildflower seed” that I’d purchased as a souvenir at the Grand Canyon in the early 1990s. The picture on the packet was appealing: delicate pink flowers on a dainty plant. And they were wildflowers! At first I was thrilled that the sprinkling of seed I applied to some desolate ground in the front yard started to germinate. I was even happier when there was that first extravagant first flowering, with dozens to hundreds of the papery, soft pink flowers covering the plants so you couldn’t see the barren ground anymore.

Okay, if you know the plant, I can tell you’re laughing and know where this is headed… But as I soon found out, as pretty as it is, this is one aggressive plant, reseeding tenaciously and spreading quickly by putting out dense webs of underground runners. More than ten years later, I’m still pulling at the stems that continue to come up in that bed. And even though they’re wildflowers, they’re not native to San Diego. Fortunately for the local ecosystem, they haven’t escaped from the bed where I naively gave them the gift of life.

Plant number two, the freeway daisy, had similar issues. It started out life as a tiny plant in a four-inch pot but soon spread like a demon, swallowing up a number of little annuals that stood in its way. At least the plant didn’t reseed much, and the stems, though they can sometimes set down root, were easy enough to control.

The final plant, the Bermuda buttercup, is a common and obnoxious weed over much of coastal Southern California. During its peak bloom in the middle of spring the perky yellow flowers over the attractive clover-ish leaves are a nice sight. But once you have it, you’ll probably have it forever.

calla lily displacement

Here’s a recently reworked piece, Calla Lily Displacement, from the Destructive Testing photo series I started ten years ago:

Calla Lily Displacement

Believe it or not this work sprang from a discomfort I had with the documentary photo tradition, where the photographer is often considered an invisible presence, and where photography is a neutral and even benign tool with which to view of the world.

Destructive Testing is a group of still life images documenting various gently destructive acts against botanical material. In these actions, I was interested in questioning that neutrality by pointing out the presence of the photographer. At the same time I wanted the image to still be a beautiful one, something that balanced the destructiveness with qualities we expect from images we want to have around us.

(And yes, I wanted to do a calla lily picture that wasn’t like the tens of thousands of them that have already been done…)

shameless self-promotion

If you’re in San Diego, I invite you to attend The Photographer’s Eye: A Way of Seeing, one of the current shows at the Museum of Photographic Arts. It’s got one of my works from my Going series as part of it. The show closes April 20.

James SOE NYUN: Steering wheel, Monument Valley (from the Going series).

Also, a few posts back I mentioned that I’d put up the link to the Top 50 Photographers at Portland’s Critical Mass, where one of my portfolios is featured. The link is now active. Take a look!

when landscaping fails

Desert Center, California lies about halfway between Indio and the Colorado River, halfway between a hot, flat desert town and the Arizona border. Unless you need to stop for gas, you pass by it on I-10 at wide-open highway speeds. It’d be a blur like any other anonymous desert town if it weren’t for the palm trees.

The huge date palms there grow single-file in formations that describe wide circles, V-shapes, or a triangle that’s many acres across. Transplanted there by Stanley Ragsdale in the early 1990s, most of the trees now have seen better days. Even for drought-tolerant date palms, irrigation is essential here in the low desert. The watering proved inadequate and many of them died. In their current state of falling into ruins the trees are visually amazing, the vegetable equivalent of the Acropolis.

Palms 1, Desert Center

James SOE NYUN: Palms I, Desert Center, California

I first went to photograph the town and its trees in 2003 on a hot, breezy day in April. It was approaching noon, and there was no shade other than what a minimal palm trunk could provide. It’s not the sort of lighting situation that a lot of photographers consider acceptable, but for this body of work it was perfect. Besides, so many of the well-known 19th century expeditionary photographs of the American West were taken in harsh conditions similar to what I encountered. Palms I, above, and Palms II, below form a diptych: Imagine Palms I on the left and Palms II on the right.

James SOE NYUN: Palms II, Desert Center, California

There weren’t many structures there next to the interstate, not much beyond the obligatory cafe and gas station. The big surprise, though, was an abandoned school, compact, constructed of brick, and modern in its architecture. It had almost no windows in the classrooms except for high clerestories place beneath broad, sheltering eaves. Not that different from the schools I attended up in the Los Angeles area, I thought. In photography–and in painting for centuries before it–ruins are often a bit of a cliche, but name me a landscape photographer who hasn’t shot some at some point. I couldn’t resist:

Desert Center School

James SOE NYUN: Breezeway, Abandoned School, Desert Center, California

Both the palm trees and the town clearly had seen better days. Stephen A. Ragsdale, the man who founded the town in 1921, died in 1971. Stanley Ragsdale, the one who directed the planting of the trees, died in 1999. Without their energies, this area of the city faltered, and the palms began to fail. The town and these landscapes shot there function for me like Northern European vanitas paintings, reminders of life’s struggles, its shortness, and the certainty of entropy. Again, those aren’t transcendentally fresh ideas, but to see them particularized in a place that’s struggling though still very much alive fascinates me. Judging by the number of people who leave the highway, gas up, then drive slowly towards the palm formations, I’m not the only one who’s fascinated.

For more information on Desert Center see: Wikipedia / The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

For more information on the large series this images are a part of see: James SOE NYUN: Blue Daylight Project.