What kind of a leap does it take to decide – without any comment by the artist – that photographs of flowers are love stories? Art takes us many places. Indeed, it can take us most anywhere real or imagined. That’s where I ended up after seeing Joyce Tenneson’s flower photos at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth. What art does best, of course, is take us to unexpected places. I have long been a fan of her photography, but I did not see that coming.

I particularly admire Tenneson’s world-renowned images of women. But whether the Rockland-based artist is showing interiors, landscapes, figures or objects, what is most remarkable (and recognizable) about her style is her aesthetic sense of texture. Her figurative work, for example, tends to use striking but unconventional models who are not well known professionals. This alone puts the work on a path of visual rather than physical intimacy by implying the model is a specific individual whom the viewer does not know and has not encountered. But the real key to these images is hidden in plain sight: Tenneson creates their “clothing” herself by wrapping or draping her subjects in highly textured fabrics. By working with fabrics that are familiar tools, Tenneson is very able to maintain her photographic aesthetic, highly textured, perfectly lit and dramatically theatrical.

What I mean here by “theatrical” relates to an art history division between “absorption” and “theatricality” in which the absorptive pose is self-contained and the figure is focused on something within their own reality. “Theatrical” images generally acknowledge the viewer/artist either directly (maybe with eye contact) or indirectly (body language, pose, etc.). It’s a very different thing, for example, to look at an image of a woman who meets your gaze than one who is focused on something in her own pictorial world.

“Of Spirit and Light” is a two-person exhibition of works by Tenneson and Craig Becker. The work is almost uncanny in its alignment, which surprises considering Tenneson’s works are all floral photographs and Becker’s are digitally pastiched photographic portraits. The connection begins with the fact that both produce works featuring supremely high-focus figures on black backgrounds. But it goes much deeper, and to discuss this, we have to dig further into how the images work.

I was fortunate enough to see this body of Becker’s work at the charming Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, Massachusetts. In that more intimate and historic setting, the figures in traditional portrait poses from Becker’s “Old Scratch” series hinted at an other worldliness, like, say, Faust’s untrustworthy demonic accomplice, Mephistopheles. But at Elizabeth Moss, Becker’s figures unfurl ideas about the irrational depths of people, hinting, for example, that the “real” person is far beyond anyone’s ability to categorize precisely or know completely. Anyone’s individual subjectivity – their human spirit – Becker intimates, is something quite other than scientific fact.

And this is precisely where Becker and Tenneson come together. Tenneson’s photographs feature images of two examples of any given flower: lilies of the valley, magnolias, love flowers and blushing brides. These prints are large and horizontal in format with the flowers coming into view out of stark but richly black backgrounds. That the flowers are seen in pairs quietly presses us to compare them, but we find the flowers are not the same ones, seen from two different angles. What we see then are two entities that are connected. They are related, but different. And this takes us away from the standard mode of scientific observation of flora in which what we seek are merely the data needed to classify the example. It brings us to a broader sense of real things in the real world, rather than labels and words. Particularly in their horizontal (read: landscape) orientations, I couldn’t help but see these flowers as couples. Then I read the labels and practically laughed out loud at the ironical wit. (Not a botanist, I had to look it up to see if blushing bride was an actual flower name.)

Does it matter if the viewer sees Tenneson’s photographs as love story portraits, like I do? As with Becker’s work, these images are so strong that any viewer can find many ways to admire or understand them. From a technical or aesthetic perspective, Tenneson’s prints are masterful. Florals comprise a huge subject throughout the history of art. No, indeed, you don’t need to see these in narrative or poetic (or even philosophical) terms to think of them as excellent photography. But you can, and I think it makes them better.

Portraits from Craig Becker’s digitally pastiched “Old Scratch” series. Photos courtesy of Craig Becker

The philosophical door that Tenneson’s pairs opens might best be introduced by Martin Buber’s seminal 1923 book “I and Thou.” The fundamental premise is that the difference between “I” and “it” is a relationship of complete and separate otherness, while the relationship of “I” and “thou” (as in “you”) doesn’t have such clear boundaries. Think of a son’s understanding of his mother, or a bride’s understanding of her spouse; even the words “son” and “bride” imply that related “other.” That’s what I see in Tenneson’s flower pairs: “Is” and “Thous.” And they’re so beautiful, they feel like love. And, what are flowers, after all, but sex organs of plants, so, yeah, I see these works as gorgeous testaments to romantic love. Am I projecting? Maybe. But pictures into which we can’t project our own experiences of the world (at least to a certain extent) are not art. Even illustration (which I hugely admire), so obviously dedicated to storytelling, is all about empathy. But whether Tenneson was thinking in terms of romantic love or something else, the softness of the I/thou relationship between the flowers is brilliant and deeply moving.

Something similar could be said of Becker’s work. He has spoken and written eloquently about what inspired him to make the “Old Scratch” series of images. I think it is an extraordinary body of work that has made for standout shows at the Griffin and Elizabeth Moss. But I think that often what drives an artist to make a body of work – what inspires or motivates him or her – is not the same thing as the ultimate content of that work. I think Becker’s work has gone well beyond his stated point of departure, which is so personal and compelling that it’s hard for viewers to move past it. So I am not going to share it here and I will even go further to suggest that when you go see “Of Spirit and Light” – and you really should – that you don’t read any of Becker’s statements until you have found your own mind about the work.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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