Though originally taken for scientific purposes, the images of California native plants in a new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Gallery were photographed using a specialized technique that created dramatic portraits against a black background.
Depth of Field: Botanical Photography Through the Low-key Lens is on view daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the garden’s Pritzlaff Conservation Center Gallery through Dec. 9.
The display features images taken over a 50-year period by eight photographers using the low-key technique to document species in the field.
The 41 giclee prints were made from color slides chosen among the thousands stored in the Botanic Garden’s archives, and reveal an artistic aesthetic in composition, contras, and detail.
Entry to the exhibit is free with garden admission, but reservations are required and can be made by visiting www.sbbotanicgarden.org/visit/hours-reservations.
“Despite the scientific nature of the photos, they demonstrate the photographer’s creative agency in their distinctive and often uncanny composition,” said Hannah Barton, garden archivist, who co-curated the exhibit with Interpretation and Exhibitions curator Kevin Spracher.
“The resulting images remind us to ask, what motivates the photographer, scientist, and artist in the first place,” Barton said. “These perspectives mark an invitation into the striking beauty of California’s flora.”
The low-key technique combines an underexposed photo with a bright light, in this case a flash, to illuminate the close-up plant while the background remains dark.
The method is still used by photographers, but digital cameras and sophisticated photo apps have generally replaced slide film and traditional photo developing methods.
“The beauty of this aesthetic is that such striking images of plants can be taken outside in broad daylight. The results are so uncanny that many viewers are surprised that the photos weren’t taken at night or in a studio,” said Spracher.
The 41 photographs were selected from thousands of previously digitized color slides. They span 1947 to 2000 and feature works taken by eight individuals associated with the garden, including staff, board members, and volunteers.
Lyda Edge was an amateur botanist and exceptional photographer who volunteered at the garden from 1969-79. She gifted hundreds of botanical photographs to the archive, as well as many mounted plant specimens from Santa Barbara and neighboring regions, which were given to the archive. Five of her images in the exhibit include species from Mendocino, Los Angles, and Santa Barbara counties.
J.R. “Bob” Haller (1930–2016) taught at UCSB for more than 35 years. After his retirement in 1994, he came to the garden for 22 years as an education botanist.
Haller was also an avid photographer who left a sizable gift of photography to the garden’s archive, including the four images in this show. Dieter Wilken and Steve Junak, also featured in the exhibit, were both students of Haller’s at UCSB.
Steve Junak served as a botanical instructor, then as curator of the Clifton Smith Herbarium in his 37-year career at the garden. He is botanist emeritus and a current research associate.
An expert on the flora of the Islands of the Californias, Junak continues to lead garden field trips to the Channel Islands. To date, he has contributed some 12,000 images to the garden archive. Of the several hundred taken using the low-key aesthetic, six images of California native plants are on view in this show, plus four images in a special section featuring plants and insects.
Reid Moran (1916–2010) began his career at the garden in 1947 as a staff botanist and later served as the curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
An expert on liveforevers (Dudleya) and the flora of Baja California and its islands, his book “The Flora of Guadalupe Island, Mexico” was published in 1996. An image of Lanceleaf liveforever (Ddleya lanceolata) taken in 1947 at San Roque Creek, is among his four images in the show.
Donald Myrick (1893–1972) served on garden’s Board of Trustees, 1956-72. He was a nature photographer who was drawn to wildflowers and enjoyed sharing his work in vibrantly illustrated slide lectures held at the garden. Among his many gifts to the garden, he left an extensive collection of color slides to the archive, of which four are on view in this show.
Betty Randall Potts was a wildlife photographer and member of the Botanic Garden in the 1990s. She was recognized as a member of several camera clubs in Northern California, and listed as an exhibitor alongside the likes of Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange.
The three works by Potts in the exhibit include “White Bear Poppy” (Arctomecon merriami) taken in Death Valley National Park.
Dieter H. Wilken, retired as director of research and conservation in 2013 after 20 years of service at the garden, and still is involved as a research associate in the garden’s Clifton Smith Herbarium.
While on staff, he took thousands of photographs on the grounds and in the field, contributing greatly to the garden’s archive of botanical images. Six images by Wilken are in this show.
Dorothy King Young (1904-99) was a well-known wildflower enthusiast; author of “Redwood Empire Wildflowers;” and a founding member of the California Native Plant Society, whose Mendocino chapter is named in her honor.
A selection of Young’s works came to the garden archives as part of a collection donated by Donald Myrick, who is also featured in this show. The five images include the humorous “family” of Ghost-pipe (Monotropa uniflora) from 1967.
Advance reservations for garden admission are required for non-members and recommended for garden members. Each includes parking for one vehicle. Carpooling is advised.
Garden hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. with the last reservation at 4 p.m. Reservations are available by specific date and time at www.sbbotanicgarden.org/visit/hours-reservations.