In Kate Friend’s botanical pictures, beauty stems from other performers

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Kate Friend invites creatives and public figures to pick a single flower or even plant for her to picture. Here, she reveals the procedure behind five of the girl portraits

The history of nevertheless life is as varied since it is long; as steeped in allegory, philosophy, and botanical science as it is entrenched within the formalist fundamentals of image-making. For photographer Kate Friend, the thrill of the genre is located among the most “extreme photographic experimentations”. She cites the impact of Anna Atkins’ groundbreaking cyanotypes, Karl Blossfeldt’s wood camera with one-metre-long bellows, and Ogawa Kazumasa’s improvements with coloured collotypes. The question associated with “what a photograph can be and how it’s made” is Friend’s creative preoccupation. It is the main tenet to her ongoing collection, As Chosen By – a series of “botanical portraits” made between 2019 and 2022.

Friend’s own relationship with botany is one associated with “enthusiasm”. Finding herself on the mission to find “the majority of vibrant, most alive vegetable specimens… to see where they were growing and how they had already been willed into existence”.   It had been this pursuit that led her into the homes and studios of willing participants for the project – a role-call of creatives and public figures including chef Jeremy Lee, fashion designer Molly Goddard, and garden developer Charlie McCormick. Each were people the artist felt might “understand” the work, Friend says, and it is a continuously evolving list.  

Via a process the artist insists is “communal… not collaborative”, each portrait narrows-in to the idiosyncratic choice of her so-called ‘sitters’: individuals recast through the alter-ego of their botanical specimen. Each is “as much a portrait of a place since it is a portrait of a person and a flower”, Friend muses.  

From Juergen Teller’s strawberry, to Dan Pearson’s dierama pulcherrimum, the results are pure unabashed colour-fields, extremely consistent in form despite the myriad challenges of their unforeseen set-ups. “A lot of launching expectations” was involved, Friend recounts – from challenging subjects, to haphazard locations and temperamental weather. Yet as time went on, the value of this free-form process began to emerge, says Friend: “I’ve found giving up some control to be essential in producing something that feels spontaneous. ”

The series is currently on display at Thyme, a resort in the Cotswolds (the work’s first showing outside of London). Viewers will be permitted to go directly from the meadow into the gallery – associating the task more overtly to concepts of “biophilia, seasonality, series, ecology, climate”, Friend tips. Whether colour or climate, they are images to remain with, to be seduced by. They are timeless in their hobby and yet as alive within concept as they were initially conceived to be, inviting dialogue with each of our own inner botanical spirits, and with the historic tradition of artists using time to frame nature’s ephemeral beauty.  

Below, all of us uncover the process behind an array of five botanical portraits.  

Margaret Howell, fashion designer: Hydrangea

Margaret Howell was very clear her hydrangea flower must be dried, not fresh – fading from pink to a specific shade of light green. Engraved antique glass was chosen for the ship, photographed in Howell’s house in Suffolk, next to a sizable glass sliding door. Howell was the first “sitter” that will Friend worked with: “Her trust comes through in the portrait, ” she says.  

Margaret Howell © Kate Friend.

Luciano Giubbilei, backyard designer: Asphodelus Fistulus

Tornado warnings, high seas and strong winds greeted Friend in Mallorca on her objective to find the Asphodelus Fistulus. The particular prolific plant blooms in February, when there is little otherwise to speak of. The flower is pictured with a kiln roller in the ceramics studio room at Luciano Giubbilei’s home, which was formerly owned by a ceramicist. This was one of the first portraits Friend made outside of the UK. The artist battled “very challenging” conditions: “I had been expecting some golden Mediterranean light and got some thing much more like the UK I’d just left, ” the lady says. “I felt like the particular island was trying to show me something”.

Isabella Tree, author and take a trip journalist: Ragwort

Traditionally maligned for poisoning horses plus cattle, ragwort is really a common wildflower that  Isabella Tree espouses in her book, Wilding , for the vital role as a pollinator. Great swathes of yellow ragwort were cut by Isabella and placed in an enormous vase, from which Friend extracted a couple of stems for the portrait. “It felt like they’d been selected to symbolically champion Isabella’s cause, ” Friend marvels.  

Isabella Tree © Kate Friend.

Penny Rimbaud, writer, philosopher, painter, musician and activist: Snowdrop

Not inclined in order to pre-determine his choice of flower, Penny Rimbaud invited Friend to stomp through the uncovered, muddy January garden of his “anarchist-pacifist home” within Essex in the hope of actually finding a suitable subject matter. Miraculously, “from a swampy patch of grass” burst forth the clump of snowdrops. For that 78 year-old artist-activist, it was a sign of beauty in vulnerability and “a noble effort” on the part of nature. “I felt like the choice had been produced, ” says Friend.  

Penny Rimbaud © Kate Friend.

Maggi Hambling, artist: Cactus

Maggi Hambling responded to Friend’s invitation with a photograph of her cactus, Esmeralda: a 30 foot high “vast leggy” specimen that resides in the vaulted ceiling of Maggi’s studio. There was no way the cactus would suit within Friend’s frame. So instead, she chose to photograph the studio as a whole. Maggi was present throughout, “smoking, painting and drinking coffee, ” as Friend recalls. “Maggi calls the cactus ‘her greatest friend in the studio’. This was something I needed to reflect in the portrait”, Friend explains.  

Louise Long

Louise Long is a London-based photographer and writer using a focus on culture and journey. Her work has been published in Wallpaper*, CEREAL, Uk Vogue and Conde Nast Traveller amongst others. She is furthermore the founder of Linseed Journal, an independent publication discovering culture and local identity.

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