The natural beauty of flowers has inspired artists for centuries, but for American nature photographer Terri Weifenbach, flowers have given rise to reflection on the cycle of life.
In the spring of 2015, a garden near the slopes of Mount Fuji at Izu Photo Museum provided ample opportunity for Weifenbach to encapsulate life by focusing her lens on nature.
“The May Sun” exhibition, on show at the Izu Photo Museum in Shizuoka Prefecture, displays Weifenbach’s bright and colorful photographs taken during her three-week residency in Japan in 2015.
It is not only photographs of blooming flowers featured at the exhibition. Black-and-white photographs of pressed flowers from her 2004 book “The Politics of Flowers” provide a somber contrast to the spring-time work from her residency.
The exhibition title — “The May Sun” — draws together these two opposing bodies of work. Weifenbach says the name grew from time spent browsing her father’s books after his death where she found the work of American poet Wallace Stevens.
“Wallace Stevens thinks about the sun as hope, as an opening, as the positive side of life,” Weifenbach said.
“He uses the sun and he will talk about the sun as a February sun, all the different aspects of a person, of a year, of the weather, and I liked that idea.”
Stevens’ poems do not specifically refer to a May sun, but the month provides a link between the two diverse bodies of work on display: flowers in photos from Weifenbach’s residency and her book “The Politics of Flowers” (2004) both bloom in May.
During an video call over Skype, I can see decades of Weifenbach’s photography filed in Kodak boxes, stacked on a bookshelf. As she explains the background to her exhibition, birds can be heard chirping through an open window. I feel a connection to nature, the same feeling experienced when looking through her photographs.
“The May Sun” is Weifenbach’s first solo museum exhibition after an almost 40-year career in which she has seen 15 books of her photography published.
Weifenbach says her work has been well received in Japan, perhaps more than in the U.S. She has visited the country frequently over the past decade.
“What drew me back initially is that Japan is so completely different from what I know,” she says.
“It is exciting and there is a lot to learn. … There is no way in to a lot of what happens for me because I can’t read Japanese. That barrier interests me, it keeps me curious.”
Weifenbach says it makes sense that her first solo museum exhibition is held in Japan.
“It feels like there is more of a philosophical understanding of one another in Japan than there is in my own culture,” she says.
This sense of empathy runs deep in the black-and-white photographs from her book “The Politics of Flowers” (2004) on show at “The May Sun” exhibition.
Weifenbach says this body of work was born from her collection of pressed flower books dating from 1896 to 1904, which she acquired on eBay after her mother’s death in 2003. Naturally, the flowers in these ageing books are fragile, in various states of decay and disintegration. Many could fall apart at her touch. One of the books, “Pressed Flowers from the Holy Land,” holds flowers picked from Palestine. On some pages, only the imprint of a flower remains.
Weifenbach says these pressed flowers provoked thoughts about the cruelty of living in places of extended conflict and spoke of a suffering land and people.
“I thought about the years of extended conflict in places such as Palestine and Afghanistan and what this does to people,” Weifenbach says. “If you’re the third generation in a conflict, you have lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, possibly a daughter, possibly a mother. How do people stand up in all that grief and loss?”
Extending this thought from the pages of her book to the wall, Weifenbach says the use of photos from “The Politics of Flowers” in “The May Sun” exhibition allows the work to be read in a new way.
“There is ‘The Politics of Flowers’ as a book. There is the catalogue, which has the sequences in a much different manner than the original book did. And now there’s ‘Politics of Flowers’ on the wall. They are all different experiences because they are seen in a completely different way,” she says.
A sequence of photos on one wall of the Izu Photo Museum shows a beautiful flower disintegrating over time until it disappears. When walking through the room in the opposite direction, the same sequence displays the flower growing from its beginning stages to full-bloomed beauty.
“I used the same flower over and over again from different books, so it is not the exact same flower but the same flower type,” she says. “I basically found photos from books where it looks like it is slowly disintegrating until the end where it is virtually exploded into nothingness. Or you can go the other way where it is put back together.
“Putting the photos on the wall gives you a situation to read the sequence as either destruction or hope.”
Terri Weifenbach’s “The May Sun” exhibition, featuring the first gallery display of “The Politics of Flowers” (2004) and “The May Sun” (2015), runs until Aug. 29 at the Izu Photo Museum. For more information, visit the museum’s website.