For three successive summers, on the top-floor landing of a house in the Berkshires, I have been photographing burdock leaves. I prop them in small glass bottles and photograph them head on, as if they were people facing me. No two leaves of any plant or tree are exactly alike, of course, but burdock leaves are of conspicuous and almost infinite variety. They are also outstandingly large—more than two feet long in some cases—which makes them extraordinarily good photographic subjects.
Richard Avedon’s portraits of famous people have been a model for my portraits of uncelebrated leaves. Avedon radically extended photography’s capacity for cruelty. The ravages of time and circumstances on the faces he photographed were mercilessly, sometimes gruesomely, recorded. As Avedon sought out faces on which life had left its mark, so I prefer older, flawed leaves to young, unblemished specimens—leaves to which something has happened. An insect has made holes in them, a blight has created strange sickly patches on their skins, rainstorms have ground dust into their veins, wind has torn pieces from them.
Photography is naively believed to reproduce visual actuality, but in fact the images our eyes take in and the images the camera delivers are not the same. Taking a picture is a transformative act. Avedon’s high-contrast black-and-white photographs render people as we do not see them in life; our eyes spare us the particulars of decrepitude and sickness that the camera almost gloatingly records. In the case of my aged and diseased leaves, the camera exercises another of its transformative capacities: it confers aesthetic value on the apparently plain and worthless.
Burdock is a rank weed that grows along roadsides and in waste places and around derelict buildings. It has a rough, harsh atmosphere. Writers have used it to denote ruin and desolation; Chekhov, for example, has burdock growing outside the unspeakable hospital of his story “Ward No. 6,” and Hawthorne marks the decline of his house of seven gables with “an enormous fertility of burdocks” nestled in its angles. The plant (called Arctium lappa in its largest manifestation and Arctium minus and Arctium tomentosum in others) arises from a root with medicinal and culinary properties. It is a tall, unruly ensemble of oversized lower leaves and thrusting stems of smaller leaves, culminating in spires of thistle-like magenta flowers that turn into burrs. In nature the lower leaves—the leaves that I collect—have a messy droopingness; they seem to be crawling along the ground. In my attic studio, stuck in bottles filled with reviving water, they come to attention and into their own. No associations of gloom and roughness adhere to them. Even before the camera completes the task, my act of plunder has given them aesthetic clout. Each leaf assumes its own pose and exhibits, almost flaunts, its individuality.
What I have done with the burdock leaves is, of course, part of the enterprise of decontextualization that received its awkward name in the late twentieth century and was a fixture of that century’s visual culture. Patchwork quilts hung on the walls of museums, African tribal masks used to decorate orthodontists’ waiting rooms, ship propellers displayed on coffee tables—these are some familiar forms of the practice of taking something from where it belongs and that has a function, and putting it where it doesn’t belong and merely looks beautiful. It looks beautiful in a particular way, to be sure, the way of modernist art and architecture and design. When I remove a burdock leaf from its dusty roadside habitat, I anticipate the stylized aspect it will assume when it is set upright against the clean white walls of my attic studio, its lineaments refined by sunlight coming from above.
But I also see images that predate modernism; namely, the illustrations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century herbals and works of botanical science, whose subjects have been similarly plucked from nature and rendered in splendid unnatural isolation. Although these decontextualizations are in aid of identification and classification, the old botanical artists were hardly immune to the beauty of the forms they scrutinized with such care. Looking at natural forms close up is an exercise in awe. The botanical illustrators never failed to convey their sense of the mystery that adheres to the gorgeousness of the particulars of the things that are alive in the world. These photographs were made under their inspiration.