Plants have been a popular motif ever since the birth of photography. This is not only because the plant world, with its wealth of details and ornamental patterns, has always exerted a strong fascination, but also because many photo pioneers of the time – several of whom were passionate amateur botanists – saw a direct connection between nature and photography. In fact, photography was regarded as a child of nature, or as Louis Daguerre, one of its inventors, described it, as “not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself”. For photo pioneers such as Daguerre, Thomas Wedgwood, Hippolyte Bayard, Anna Atkins and Henry Fox Talbot there was a fundamental correspondence between photography’s use of light and chemistry to create images and living organisms like plants, which through photosynthesis transform sunlight into chemical energy and thereby oxygen – a process upon which all life on earth depends. Photo means light in Greek (phos) and graphy (graphia) to draw or write; synthesis to combine two or more entities into new formations. But how important is nature for the understanding of photography today and which re-combinations occur when depicting it?

Nowadays few will feel a strong affinity between the flowers that they photograph and the digital camera in their smartphone – nor the images that are subsequently uploaded on the internet or received as digital prints from an online photo service. Both photography and our relationship to nature are very different from 150 years ago, or even a generation ago. Though plants have always been a part of human culture, and the crossing of plants – that is, the artificial breeding of ornamental, edible or medicinal plants – has been practised for thousands of years, our way of living today is in many ways unprecedented. While the direct contact with the photographic (natural) material – light, chemistry, paper – has been replaced by digital technology and inkjet printing, nature and our way of using it are becoming increasingly transformed by industrial production and genetic engineering. Even the identification of plants has become a matter of genetics, questioning the necessity for visual disciplines like drawing and photography within science. At the same time, plants and flowers continue to be an ever-popular theme that is mainly experienced through images, from nature films and videos to photos in natural science magazines or on social-media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.

Photosynthetic takes a look at what plant photography has been and can be today. At the intersection of art and botany, the journey goes from the pioneers of the Victorian age to contemporary art, stopping en route to delve into Karl Blossfeldt’s plant photographs, botanical microscope photography, the Amazonian forest, and the intelligence of roots. Ten portfolios present works by contemporary artists who each have their own take on the theme. Several place plant photography in relation to the botanical sciences, while others reflect the cultivation – and representation – of plants as an artificial product or a work of art. All show plants and images that emerge from a different ground than that of the 19th century. But the fascination of plants, the continuous wonder of looking at them, remains the same.