Everything Looks Different in the Dark: a review of ‘Velvet Black’ by Fleur Olby and ‘Night Blooms’ by Angus Carlyle

Fleur Olby’s ‘Velvet Black’ (2018) and Angus Carlyle’s ‘Night Blooms’ (2020) contain photographs of flowers and other natural phenomena in darkness. The two small publications share mutual interests in the beauty and escapism that nature often provides, something that is especially critical at times of crisis. Indeed, Camden Art Centre’s current high-profile online exhibition ‘The Botanical Mind’ and recent articles in Apollo and Elephant magazines have highlighted this need, offering screen-based botanical experiences from home. ‘Night Blooms’ and ‘Velvet Black’ draw out other facets of this relationship with nature, one that is complicated as we continue to interfere, ever struggling to get to grips with nature’s rhythms and its chaos. Explored explicitly in Carlyle’s book through photographs taken in fleeting snatches on solitary runs, this relationship is more subtly alluded to in Olby’s via staged floral still-lives.

Olby’s photographs are contemplative and intimate. Roughly life-sized and centrally positioned on the page, her photographs are shot dramatically on black ‘velvet’ backgrounds that emphasise the strange perfection of the specimens selected – iris, columbine, rhododendron, meadow grass, auricular, aquilegia – all removed from their usual wild or garden context. She highlights the fragile transparency of petals, intricacies of structure and form, and wide variety of colour. Scent is almost palpable. The photographs are motionless, quiet, painterly. Several of the photographs are barely there – flowers subsumed by their velvet and by differently coloured surrounds that frame each one. The surrounds shift across lilac, sage, dark brown, dark grey and bruised purple, building a vocabulary of colour that informs the reading of the photographs. They have something of an emotionally charged atmosphere though it is hard to pinpoint exactly which emotion we ought to feel. Something is off. The surrounds feed our reading of the specimens like a secret code, as the black text beneath them, denoting Latin or common names, becomes increasingly illegible as we turn the darkest pages.

The photographs printed in ‘Night Blooms’ likewise offer poppies, buttercups, thistles, bluebells and other botanical specimens as the title suggests. But spread across its pages are also tarpaulins, mattresses and other detritus, barbed wire fencing, a dead fox, a telegraph pole and rainbow-clouded smoke. Two images depict streaks of light that might be vehicle headlights or lampposts. The camera’s flash lights the dark photographs, often leaving visible vignette halos. The miscellaneous items of the world are open to (mis)interpretation.

Considering process, Olby notes: “my light reapproaches daylight, particularly as it fades to black”. Her comment is ambiguous. It is unclear if these are shot at night, outdoors or in, or if velvet fabric backdrops are used. Mystery here affords intrigue in these measured studies. Carlyle, meanwhile, is clear on process. The body of work was made on night runs through woodlands and public spaces distorted by darkness. His perspective feels more familiar, quite similar to my own. These are multiple pieced-together experiences of a world in a rush. For him, the ‘bloom’ is more than a flower. It is an umbrella term for a host of significant things discovered by Carlyle as he transgresses night time landscapes – a bloom of something from the darkness that calls to him, bringing forth brief encounters with plants, animals, structures, sometimes even people, as the writing that fills the first half of the book attests. The bloom, too, is the camera flash itself – the very means of discovering and capturing the images.

The two publications use text in distinctively different ways. While Olby’s ‘Velvet Black’ is introduced with a brief poetic phrase and contains the names of its specimens, seventeen pages of ‘Night Blooms’ are devoted to poems written by Carlyle that illuminate the journeys made and the photographs presented. Carlyle’s book details human activity and presence in the landscape through his poems as well as photographs; in Olby’s, this takes place sub-surface. Lines by Carlyle including “a sudden pungent waft of a soap that is not mine” hint toward live encounters with others in these disconcerting places; “Three blue faces at the bus stop talk while looking at screens. A dog makes a diagonal of its leash, front paws clawing air …” makes clear that the lines between nature’s spaces and ours are blurred indeed.

Olby’s book feels fragile, not only in its content, but in its lightweight paper stock, French folds and stitched binding. It can’t be fully opened flat, as if to imply that the book should be handled with extreme care. We have to peek into its pages as if we shouldn’t be there. Carlyle’s publication, by contrast, feels much more robust – it’s staple binding is looped, seeming to suggest that parts two and three might join ‘Night Blooms’ at some later date. While Olby’s design is formally consistent, with photographs centralised singly per page, Carlyle’s is much more experimental and in keeping with its exploratory content. ‘Night Blooms’ contains full-bleed single and near seamless double-page spreads, grids, formal centralised photographs, some of which are out of focus, and a number of partially layered images that seem to skip across the paper’s coated surfaces on clean white grounds. The layered pages, in particular, befit the publication’s assertion as a place where “territory, trails and terrain overlap and collide”, offering clues to deeper motivations for the project.

‘Velvet Black’ brings with it the weight of historical and art historical contexts. The rich histories of Dutch flower painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Victorian collection and exhibition motivations readily spring to mind. These contexts carry with them problematic yet fascinating socio-political, economic and environmental burdens at odds with the beauty of Olby’s blooms. There are present day concerns imbedded too – intensive flower farming for global markets, for instance – but it is in ‘Night Blooms’ where the contemporary is truly foregrounded. Carlyle’s photographic encounters are clear evidence that wild nature is rare and seldom untouched by our presence.

Nature can be a source of comfort and delight but it never stands still and it always fights back. Flowers don’t always bloom as we hope; everything looks different in the dark.

 – essay by Anneka French – 

Angus Carlyle: Night Blooms
Makina Books, 2020
ISBN 9781916060852
19.9 cm x 15.5 cm
Paperback, 64 pages

Fleur Olby: Velvet Black
Published by Fleur Olby, 2018
ISBN: 9786000029616
21 cm x 14.8 cm
Paperback, side singer binding, 39 pages

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