The Art of Botanical Portraiture
Shannon Heng gives you a glimpse into his intimate botanical portraits, and the thought process behind it.
Several years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a regional photography event on the theme “What you are best at”. This simple statement set me up in a conundrum of self-appraisal. After much thought, my answer came as a resounding no… Good, maybe, but I definitely was not the best. The medium being as diverse as it is, learning never ceases, and the more you learn, you begin to realise how less you know. So, what am I best at? Instead of cracking my head over the question, I am going to list down the things that I am good at based on my photographic experiences.
I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I enacted scenes of battles and fantasy on paper with crayons, which fascinated and confused my parents in equal measure. And like all supportive Asian parents, I ended up with a degree in Computer Engineering. On the contrary, this stereotypical and linear educational approach provided several silver linings. One of them was the inculcation of a vigorous engineering design process that gave me the skill set to channel my imagination into coherent artistic ideas, with photography becoming my preferred medium of expression. With the same engineering approach, I focused on the pursuit of good craftsmanship, with a belief that a strong foundation in photography is the key to overcoming any challenges when articulating ideas.
In the process of working with florae, I developed cognitive empathy for them— empathy by thought rather than feelings. I place myself in its position and see the world through its perspective. When a connection like this is established, it becomes easier to visually portray the subject in a way that most people would normally not view it. For instance, the Pleurothallis cypripedioides is a miniature orchid from the Amazon region with pouch-like flowers that is six millimeters tall. The flowers resemble tiny reddish-brown fruits that are split open. Under ambient light, it looks dull and unattractive. However, the way I envisioned the flowers, I saw them attracting pollinators with sunlight illuminating them, thereby transforming the pouch cavity to sparkle like a treasure trove of red rubies. I brought this vision to life by using several off-shoe flashes.
Working with florae requires patience because nature works at its own pace. For a seedling to reach flowering age can take several years. Most species orchid do not bloom all year round. For some, flowering is triggered by seasons, for others, a change in temperature. Waiting for the right moment usually stretches over a substantial period of time. For instance, the Habenaria medusa is a native terrestrial Working with florae requires patience because nature works at its own pace. For a seedling to reach flowering age can take several years. Most species orchid do not bloom all year round. For some, flowering is triggered by seasons, for others, a change in temperature. Waiting for the right moment usually stretches over a substantial period of time. For instance, the Habenaria medusa is a native terrestrial As I was not able to bring out its best features, the shoot had to be postponed to the next flowering season. During the wait, I continued my research of the species and studied its anatomy. To put things into perspective, the one-year wait was a relatively short period compared to the twelve year cycle for Strobilanthes kunthianus, growing on the hillsides of the Eravikulam National Park.
“I often tell a story with my photography in a style that is akin to producing a theater stage show. It requires a compelling storyline, attractive lead actors and stage lighting to create a mood that results in a two-dimensional diorama.”
I often tell a story with my photography in a style that is akin to producing a theater stage show. It requires a compelling storyline, attractive lead actors and stage lighting to create a mood that results in a two-dimensional diorama. On account of my habit of taking the “scenic route”, florae became the subject for my storytelling. Unlike human actors or models who can be coached to portray a certain emotion for a scene, florae are perpetual mimes that requires study and research to find out how they communicate. Out of all the florae in the botanical world, I have the propensity to choose orchids. Not just any common orchids—my favorites are the queen of all orchids, the species orchid. Being endemic to certain regions of the world, these species orchids require specific conditions to flourish and bloom. For instance, the Jumellea punctate originates from the evergreen forest of eastern Madagascar. To propagate, it requires a specific species of moth with proboscis that match the length of the flower spur to successfully pollinate. In the image that I made, I photographed the flower in a way where it was resting on its stem, with its petals stretching out like welcoming arms to embrace the moth, and used external lights to illuminate the long tail-like spur to highlight this unique feature.
Over the years, from a structured engineering mindset, to developing a creative flair by weaving a compelling storyline, I have combined and elevated what I am good at into what I am perhaps best known for—a signature style in botanical portraiture, and creating a platform for the florae world. I am thankful that the photography journey I pursue has been gratifying and thought-provoking.
This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Better Photography.