Huntington Witherill

Huntington Witherill’s new book, Botanical Dances, is being published by Lenswork Publishing. The book costs $65, and may be ordered from Lenswork Publishing at Jim Kasson spoke with Hunter in his studio in Monterey, California.

The Art

JK: How’d you get started with the Botanical Series?

HW: In 1985, a friend gave me a pressed Datura flower, and I made a close-up photograph of it. At the time, I loved the image, but I didn’t immediately think of doing a series. I had the image in my portfolio, and took it to a workshop I was teaching in Yosemite. A woman in the class by the name of Ray Santos noticed the image, liked it, and said, “I’ve got these wonderful Mountain Lady Slippers, and I’ll lend them to you.” So I made an image of them. It was then I thought, “This is a neat idea, I’ve got to start doing some more of these.”

JK: Where did you get the idea to put the flowers on paintings?

HW: I was in Frances Baer’s studio, saw a watercolor that intrigued me, and I asked her what she was going to do with it. She said, “Oh, it’s just an exercise.” I asked her if I could borrow it to photograph part of it and it worked for me. I started experimenting with different kinds of paintings and made a few paintings of my own.

JK: Watercolors as well?

HW: Watercolors on watercolor paper. After Frances saw the photograph, she too got excited and made me more paintings. Dennis High did the same thing. For me, this series is a form of collaboration – a reversal of what some painters do. They often use photographs as a basis for their paintings. Here, I’ve used paintings as a basis for my photographs. When composing these photographs, I think of the paintings as sort of a sketchpad, and the flowers as the pencil.

JK: How did you work in the studio?

HW: I’d take a number of paintings and lay them out on a table with hundreds of different flowers, ferns, and other botanical specimens. I’d move these things around, and after a while I’d start to see a composition that looked interesting to me. Then I’d clear the table off, take that particular setup to the copy stand in my studio and fine-tune the composition.

JK: What’s important to you in these images?

HW: I think one of the real tricks to still-life photography is to maintain dynamics, movement, and a sense of space in a predetermined composition. It’s very difficult to do. It’s much harder than going out into the natural landscape and producing a dynamic composition. Making these images so they don’t look stilted and stiff – that’s a real challenge.

JK: Is that because the bar is higher for a still life – people expect a perfection in an arrangement that they don’t expect in the real world?

HW: They may look at it that way if the photograph doesn’t work, but if a still life is successful, nobody will ever give it a thought. They’ll see the image for its three-dimensional qualities, or sense of movement…” They won’t think of it as a still life. What I’m putting together is an arrangement, but I don’t want the viewer to think of it that way; I want them to get the overall feeling of the image beyond its simple mechanics.

JK: When I first saw these images, I didn’t even see the flowers as flowers for a while.

HW: I’m trying to transcend the subject matter with the composition and the overall effect of the photograph, so people aren’t thinking: “These are flowers. These are arranged flowers, these are flowers on paintings.” I don’t want people to think about any of that. I want people to look at the image and get some sort of a heart-felt emotion from it. If they do, then I’ve been successful.

JK: How long did this project take?

HW: About ten years. I was working on other things during that period.Each time I try a new photographic approach, it’s like adding another color to a painter’s palette. I don’t stop using the blue when I find out about the red. However, this particular series is about played out. I haven’t done anything in this vein for several years.

JK: How has this series been received?

HW: Very well, for a number of reasons. There’s an element of my audience that didn’t know me before I started to do these images. These are people who were just not interested in landscapes at all. This series has perhaps a more universal appeal than the landscapes, not only to photographers, but to people outside of photographic circles. So far, the reactions that the publisher has received about this book have been gratifying.

That said, I don’t do the work based on the reaction of the public. I do my work for an audience: photography is communication. I hope for an audience, but you can’t really do things based on what you think will sell.

JK: When you started doing landscapes, you were operating within a long-standing photographic tradition. Did you know of any similar prior work when you started this series?

HW: I didn’t. When you start to do most anything, people will usually come out of the woodwork to tell you that someone’s already done this, but so far that’s not happened with this work. However, photographing flowers has been an incredibly popular pursuit since the invention of the camera.Outside of landscape and the nude figure, flowers are probably the most popular photographic subject matter. My chief interest with photography has always been the relationships between design elements in a two-dimensional plane. Subject matter is secondary. It doesn’t really matter to me whether it’s flowers, or wooden blocks or metal sculpture. I care more about the lines and the forms and the relationships between those elements.

Making the book

JK: You had an unusual degree of control over the makeup of this book.Could you describe the process you followed?

HW: I scanned each of the negatives, and applied roughly the same manipulations in Photoshop that I do when I print the negatives in the darkroom. Working with the publisher, I designed the book, then took my image files and used a page layout program called InDesign to create the files that drove the plate maker.

JK: That means you picked the paper, the inks, the fonts, the graphic elements, and created the layout of the text and the images, right?

HW: Yes and no. I made all of those decisions, but I knew that once I got to the publisher, he’d want to make some changes. I like to have his input, because I like his aesthetic judgment. We have a working relationship in which there’s give and take: I can see when he’s got a better idea, and he can see when I’ve got a better idea. I didn’t take my finished design up with the idea that “it’s this way, or the highway.” It was more like: here’s what I have in mind, let’s refine it.

JK: Is there an aspect to the design that’s particularly important?

HW: There’s one thing that’s very important to me, and that’s the order in which the images appear. In this book there are foldout images that are designed and placed in such a way as to separate the book into sections of related images.

JK: What’s the printing process?

HW: It’s a tri-tone process, with two of the plates using the same black ink.There’s a full-range black plate, a plate called the skeleton black plate that only inks the very darkest areas, and the third plate was a warm gray plate. This book is printed using the same direct-to-plate process as my previous book: Orchestrating Icons. There’s an Agfa machine that takes in a computer file and produces the plate directly, with no intervening film.

JK: So that means that you have to apply a screen in Photoshop.

HW: The resolution of the grayscale file is 600 dpi, and a 300-line screen is used.

JK: That’s a really tight screen.

HW: Normally, one of the problems with such a fine screen is you tend to get blocking in the dark values. The direct-to-plate process allows a great degree of control over the plate because the process is tightly controlled and the artist can make minute adjustments in the computer file fed to the plate making machine. This makes changes quicker, and less expensive. It’s still expensive though; so it’s much better to get it right the first time.

JK: That’s where calibration comes in, right?

HW: Yes, and direct-to-plate helps you there by giving you a more stable process to work with. If you send a print out to be scanned or screened photographically, you’ve got a lot more variables. In the case of photographic screening, someone might develop the film a little more this time than last time, and that’ll affect your contrast. For the most part, with the process I’m using, if there’s a problem I’m usually the one that caused it.

JK: How’d you calibrate the plate maker/press combination?

HW: We ran two press tests. The first one used calibration settings that I created from the last book. As it turned out, I didn’t take proper account of tonal changes caused by the tri-tone process used in the previous book, so the midtones were wrong. After the calibration was fixed, we ran a second test. It was perfect: right on the money. We were sufficiently confident that when we ran the second test, rather than just ganging up a bunch of images on the page, we decided to do something we could use.So we printed a half-page poster and some promotional materials.

JK: And during the press run…

HW: When we finally got on press, I was up every twenty minutes for 48 hours, checking the printed sheets to make sure they were done properly.By the end, I was pretty well frazzled. Last year when I got done I swore I wouldn’t do another book this year, and here I am doing one. But I won’t do one next year. [smiles]

JK: Give it a couple of months, and you’ll have forgotten a lot of the agony.

HW: Maybe. Since this publisher has seemed both willing and eager to work with me, I’d be a fool not to take him up on an offer for another book.One of the reasons he took me on for the first book was that I believe he saw the opportunity for a number of different books. This book is designed to be a companion to the first book: Orchestrating Icons. The design in both books is similar.

JK: For some of your work, you’ve been producing prints from digital files by using an image setter to make negatives for contact printing. Is that true for the images in Botanical Dances?

HW: Not entirely. For the most part I’ve been making conventional prints from these negatives. However, as a by-product of scanning the negatives for the book, I’ve been able to make contact silver prints from the files.

JK: Do these images satisfy you more than conventional prints from the same negatives?

HW: In most cases, yes. My rule of thumb with all digital work is: if it doesn’t produce a better print than I can make with an enlargement, I won’t use it; I’ll stick with a conventional enlargement. In this series, the images I take into Photoshop are usually the ones that have small flaws which would be difficult to spot out.

Because it’s a still-life series, it’s much easier to handle than, say, a landscape, when making conventional enlargements. The lighting was all natural, but it’s more controlled and even, and there’s not a lot of dodging and burning required. What’s most important to me in these images is the tonal representations; I’m not interested in more sharpness, and the contrast is fine. Success with the digital process means that I can’t tell the difference between a digital contact print and an enlargement.

JK: We’ve dwelt on some of the negatives of having so much direct control over a photographic book. What are some of the positives?

HW: You have so much control over the reproduction of these images, that, if you’re careful with what you do, the reproduction can be virtually indistinguishable from the original print. In fact, in the last book, we included a silver print in the book. If I flip between that print and the page that has the printed version of that print, I can’t see the difference, and I know the print very well.

JK: Even though the book isn’t bound yet, you’ve seen all the pages. Are you happy with the results?

HW: I’m absolutely delighted. When I saw the second test, I was just ecstatic. I never dreamed that the reproduction of these images would be that good. While I remain a bit cautious since we don’t actually have it bound at this point, I’m pleased with the printing, and excited about this book.