Surrogate Portraits

Plants photographed in colour in the context of a studio could perhaps be assimilated into the genre of portraiture, a portrait of a living species similar to that of a person. The plant motif was developed in painting in the second half of the 17th century as a vanity, a symbol of mortality and a reminder that all living things decline, wither and disappear: like those vanitas, the artists’ plants in Surrogate Portraits show signs of corruption and disease. Thinking of these photographs as ‘portraits’ emphasizes the fact that they are not inanimate, immutable, decorative objects but living things: they grow, they have scars, signs of disease, been amputated, had their leaves eaten by various insects; and die. They depend upon our care and scrutiny to see the signs of malaise and unhappiness.
Broadening the representation and mixed in with their own ‘painterly’ approach, the artists have introduced a historical and archival dimension with a small series of black and white postcards of plants and flower arrangements published in the GDR in the 1960’s/70’s. Here the flowers are very much about decoration and artifice, the absence of colour emphasizing the composition and arrangement. They are ‘professional’, commercial photographs made to send a message to a domestic space and their inclusion in this work touches on the personal nature of the artists’ 'domestic archive' where studio, life and art intertwine. This leads to the inclusion of a series of digital shots. The frame is large, pulled back in such a way that it shows the set up, a 5 x 4 large format camera, the photographic backdrop, the mirrors used in reflecting and refracting natural light and a few fleeting actions, showing the artists watering and attending to a plant as one would attend to any portrait sitter. Returning to the painterly tradition, we see the passing, fragmentary or shadow image of the artists themselves.