Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Texas toadflax, Indian paintbrush, and Nueces coreopsis lead to some philosophical musings

with 29 comments

Here’s some Texas toadflax (Nuttallanthus texanus) with Indian paintbrushes (Castilleja indivisa) and Nueces coreopsis (Coreopsis nuecensis) on the grounds of the Christ Lutheran Church in New Berlin on March 18th.

Not wanting want to slight the two species in the background, I’ve added one portrait apiece of those other wildflowers photographed on the same visit to the churchyard.

This reminds me now of the venerable aphorism—so venerable I just made it up*—that every portrayal is a betrayal. In other words, a portrait is only a person’s representation, necessarily limited, of something else; a portrait isn’t the portrayed thing itself. We needn’t even get that philosophical: these pictures obviously differ from the way I saw the scenes with my eyes and brain when I was there. I’ve processed each photograph with software to make it look pleasing, and that also is mutable: sometimes even by the next day I readjust the settings because my sensibilities have changed. The third image, processed four days later than the first, came out moodier. People in the milieu of “art” photography might exhibit the third photo but not the first: when knocking on those gallery doors, brightness need not apply.

* After the phrase “Every portrayal is a betrayal” popped into my head, I did a Google search for that exact phrase and got a single hit, in Humid, All Too Humid by Dominic Pettman. Some might say there’s nothing new under the sun. Well, sometimes there is, but not this time.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 12, 2019 at 4:45 AM

29 Responses

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  1. beautiful close ups!


    April 12, 2019 at 5:07 AM

  2. I like that bright, vibrant, cheerful first photo!
    Of course, I may change my mind.

    Robert Parker

    April 12, 2019 at 9:27 AM

    • Yes, you might, and so might I. For the moment I’m with you in liking the first photo bright. After writing what I did near the end of the post, out of curiosity I reprocessed that image to make it more like the last picture but I still preferred the first version and kept it in the post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 12, 2019 at 12:05 PM

      • Doesn’t “betrayal” sound a bit harsh? Every portrait is an expression of perception. I did look in the dictionary, and some of the synonyms seem good for a photographic portrait – – reveal, disclose, make known, unmask, etc.
        BTW, this post, and your fondness for language and words, reminded me an example of generification from “back home.” If you’re talking to people in Rochester, NY, you have to be careful to avoid saying “Hey Steve, we could ditch the cameras, and make a xerox of the flower at Walgreens.” There’s a lot of ex-Kodak guys who will snap “Hey buddy do you mean Make A Photocopy??” Xerox and Kodak were both founded in Rochester, and Kodak bailed out of photocopiers many years ago, but I’ve actually had this happen a couple of times (come on guys, grab a kleenex and get over it).

        Robert Parker

        April 12, 2019 at 2:02 PM

        • I’ll grant you that “betrayal” could be seen as harsh or exaggerated, but it quickly stakes out one pole of the argument: a mere semblance, as contrasted with the real thing. I find it interesting that Dominic Pettman and I came up with the same adage. I found the statement in a collection of his aphorisms, so I don’t know the context or how literally he intended people to take his assertion.

          I believe your use of generification is the first I’ve run across. To my surprise, I found that noun in a couple of dictionaries from the late 1800s and early 1900s:


          That term aside, I’ve long been aware of the way a proprietary term sometimes becomes a common noun or verb. If you watch old movies you’ll sometimes hear people speak of a kodak when they mean simply a camera. Sometimes the process moves far enough that the original is completely forgotten: who now knows that zipper started out as a trademarked name for a particular kind of fastener? At least with kleenex, the original Kleenex is still being marketed.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 12, 2019 at 2:41 PM

          • I’ve always liked the way English people say “hoover the carpet” for vacuum cleaning. I’m sorry that “lucifer,” which I’ve seen frequently in Victorian-era books, lost out to “match.” I don’t know why “Lucifer” went in the “dumpster.”

            Robert Parker

            April 12, 2019 at 3:05 PM

            • I heard that use of hoover on television just the other day. And yes, it’s too bad that Lucifer, literally ‘light bringer,’ lost out to match. My guess is that religious people objected to it, or better yet we could say that Lucifer was no match for religious objections. (In fact match doesn’t match match; the two are unrelated words.) As for dumpster, Wikipedia has this to say about it: “Trademark was cancelled in 2015. Trademarked by Dempster Brothers, Inc. in 1963, dumpster is originally a portmanteau of the word dump and the last name Dempster. It originally appeared in the 1951 product name Dempster Dumpster, while related patents date back to 1937.”

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 12, 2019 at 3:27 PM

  3. You’ve touched something that I’ve been musing on as well. In any event, these images strike me as gorgeous, and my sensibilities are happy.


    April 12, 2019 at 10:14 AM

    • Happy sensibilities, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Interesting that you’ve also been musing on this topic.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 12, 2019 at 12:06 PM

      • Yes, I’ve been pondering it quite a bit. Any given subject can be painted several different ways that all appeal to me, and I go back and forth as to which I prefer. Abstract sells the best, of course.


        April 13, 2019 at 8:25 AM

        • I’m surprised to hear that in your experience abstract sells best. I’d have thought most people prefer a rendering closer to realism.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 13, 2019 at 9:08 AM

          • It baffles me, too. And while I do enjoy painting the odd abstract, they don’t feed my soul the way realism does. Do I prefer a fed soul with an attic full of canvases, or a paid soul with money in the bank? Ha, when I put it like that the answer is obvious.


            April 14, 2019 at 8:03 AM

            • That’s the dilemma many artists face.

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 14, 2019 at 11:29 AM

              • I have my white pelicans in an avian art show over at Volo Bog. I went to see the show, and was delighted at the high quality of art there. Either the hobbyists have all learned how to paint, or a bunch of professional artists have moved into the area. My favorite paintings were by a woman who creates a web of color, sort of, for her backgrounds, and her subject is a part of the web. Very effective. I’m going to see if I can push myself in that direction, abstracting the background more.


                April 15, 2019 at 8:09 AM

                • We’ll wait to see you post the results of moving in that abstract direction. Happy new, as Eve says.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  April 15, 2019 at 8:56 AM

                • Paul has to go to a wound clinic for a wound on his foot that won’t heal. The specialist he sees is from the Philippines, and she shares Eve’s positive energy.
                  Yes, happy new.


                  April 17, 2019 at 1:55 PM

  4. Philosophy and flowers, such a beautiful mix. I once photographed spring woodland wildflowers with all the detailed closeup lens power of my DSLR. When the friend who was with me saw my photos she said that wasn’t at all what the woods had looked like.


    April 12, 2019 at 12:42 PM

    • You’ve given an apt anecdote to show the subjectivity of human perception. One reason I like using a closeup lens is that it reveals the world in a way that’s pretty different from what our eyes and brain normally see. That thought was on my mind when I looked through my macro lens this morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 12, 2019 at 12:49 PM

  5. At first, your use of ‘betrayal’ seemed a little odd: even negative. Then, I remembered a secondary definition of the word ‘betray’ — to unintentionally reveal, or give evidence of. One of the delights of your floral portraits lies precisely there: they ‘betray’ something of the flower or plant that’s not usually seen, and, however intentionally or unintentionally, give evidence of its unique qualities.

    That’s a little removed from the point you were making about subjectivity and seeing, but on the other hand, isn’t it also true that when someone sees something we’ve missed while making or processing an image, we suddenly see both the image and the subject of that image differently, ourselves?

    Beyond that, it occurs to me that selection of a subject, choices made while photographing, and decisions related to the processing of the image also betray something of the person behind the camera. That’s common knowledge, I suppose, but it’s interesting to ponder.

    All that said, I like the images. The first appeals to me because it shows the vibrant colors that have characterized this year. Some of the bluebonnets, phlox, huisache, and paintbrush have looked oversaturated in the fields, but their colors have been quite real.


    April 12, 2019 at 7:31 PM

    • I did mean betrayal in the negative sense, though you’ve cleverly “positivized” my remarks by pointing out the additional ‘reveal’ sense of betray. and of course I’m happy to see you find positivity and revelation in some of these plant portraits.

      Your second paragraph reminds me of those optical illusions, like the reversing cube or the vase-versus-face profiles, that we sometimes keep seeing in one way only until suddenly, for no obvious reason, the other way clicks into view.

      And I agree that the “selection of a subject, choices made while photographing, and decisions related to the processing of the image also betray something of the person behind the camera.” Now, how constant that person behind the camera is is another question. Beethoven generally sounds like Beethoven, though for a certain piece or movement of his we’re sometimes tempted to say: “Hmm, that doesn’t sound like Beethoven.” Yet Beethoven it is.

      Speaking of oversaturation in the fields, I’ll have a different take on that tomorrow in the form of phlox.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 12, 2019 at 10:27 PM

  6. All photography could be termed as betrayals. There is nothing real about a two dimensional image some how portraying three dimensions plus our choice of composition adds to the trickery. But I would have to say in terms of beauty your images are no betrayals.

    Steve Gingold

    April 15, 2019 at 4:24 AM

    • Thanks for the compliment. You’ve upheld the argument for betrayal by noting that squeezing three dimensions into two automatically throws away a portion of reality. Even stereo photography, which I used to practice, produced a cardboard-cutout sort of the 3-D.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 15, 2019 at 6:18 AM

  7. This series of wildflowers has been stunning. |It’s not possible to pick a favorite.

    I never remembered the Spanish ‘eureka’ moment, but it will eventually resurface. There’s a new one, however – the connection between lavar and lavatory…

    • Yes, it’s been a great wildflower spring, maybe the best I’ve experienced. We’ll see what the rest of April and then May have in store.

      Even if you don’t recover the lost eureka moment, so many others await to fill the lacuna (hence Spanish laguna and English lagoon).

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 17, 2019 at 10:12 PM

  8. Super images Steve.. as always! I too often find myself revisiting and tweaking images later ..🙂


    April 18, 2019 at 2:56 PM

    • I do my share of revisiting and revising, too. I take way more pictures than I could ever show here, especially during periods when the wildflowers have been so spectacular.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 18, 2019 at 3:02 PM

  9. Your perspective is not only more interesting than mine, but also very different from mine. You take pictures of how you think the flowers should look, which is all I have to go by. I mean, your perception really forms my perception, so what you believe to be important in the pictures is how I really expect the flowers to look. You perception is different because only you are there to see the flowers. I have no experience with them. Therefore, your contributions to my perception is rather exclusive. It is pretty cool.


    April 18, 2019 at 11:17 PM

    • Thanks. I appreciate your good insights. Occasionally I take a straightforward picture of a plant to show how it looks in context or so I’ll have features with which to try to identify it, but such “documentary” photographs don’t interest me. I’m after some sort of pleasing mix of forms, colors, and angles, often abstracted and therefore not entirely realistic and probably not how other people would see the scene. You could say it’s my viewpoint, literally and figuratively. In the art world, one longstanding claim is that an artwork transforms its subject. You could say that’s what I’m doing in my portraits.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 19, 2019 at 5:32 AM

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