‘To Instill a Love for Them’: Plant Cinematography and Botanical Ethics (ASLE Ecomedia)

‘To Instill a Love for Them’: Plant Cinematography and Botanical Ethics (ASLE Ecomedia)


Hello and my thanks to the organisers of the ASLE online symposium and to the other presenters on this panel ‘Plants and the Nonhuman’. I’m John Ryan based in Australia at the University of New England and the University of Western Australia. I’m going to speak on the topic ‘To Instill a Love for Them: Plant Cinematography and Vegetal Ethics’. The main part of the title comes from photographer and cinematographer Arthur Pillsbury’s book ‘Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life’ from 1937. I’ll return shortly to Pillsbury’s time-lapse films of the wildflowers of Yosemite National Park, which he began producing in 1912. Pillsbury lamented the disappearance of Yosemite plants such as scarlet monkey flower Washington Sierra lily, stream orchid and Mariposa tulip pictured here. Understanding the moving image as an intervention in early-twentieth-century plant diversity loss, he wrote that, quote, ‘One of the first reactions of seeing a reel of flowers growing and opening was to instill a love for them, a realization of their life struggles so similar to ours and a wish to do something to stop the ruthless destruction of them, which was fast causing them to become extinct’, end quote. Flash forward 100 years to ‘The Kingdom of Plants’, an example of a botanical film with technological chic, written and narrated by David Attenborough and filmed over one year at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The film incorporates advances in time-lapse and infrared technology in order to render the lives of plants visible to viewers and, arguably, as this paper will appraise, leading to, quote, ‘a realization of their life struggles so similar to ours’, end quote, in the Arthur Pillsbury sense. Attenborough’s project encouraged the audience to become active participants, rather than passive viewers, for instance, by using by using tablets to speed up and slow down the flowering process. A review in ‘The Guardian’ suggests the appropriateness of time-lapse as a means to disclose otherwise illegible plant ontology, noting that, quote, ‘It’s only when you speed them up that they reveal their true nature’, end quote. So I want to call into question this claim that technologically mediating plants and compressing their temporalities leads to understanding, empathy and ethical response. I do so by extending N. Katherine Hayles notion of intermediation towards a conception of intermedial ethics, specifically linking the bodies of plants to the materiality of the moving image, and, to this, I superadd recent developments in plant ethics to formulate intermedial vegetal ethics. I then apply these theoretical adumbrations to four cases of plant cinematography, a term used by Palle Petterson, spanning the early 20th century to the contemporary. And so the first is F. Percy Smith’s ‘The Birth of a Flower’, from 1910. The second is Arthur Pillsbury’s first showing of time-lapse wildflowers in 1912. The third, ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’, directed by Michael Edols and produced by Mark Falzon in 1990. And the fourth, Attenborough’s opus ‘Kingdom of Plants’ from 2012. I conclude with speculation on the possibility of instilling a love for them through botanical film. So I now turn to intermedial ethics based on Hayles’ intermediation and Stacy Alaimo’s trans-corporeal subjectivity. In our essay, ‘Intermediation: The Pursuit of a Vision’, Hayles invokes anthropologist Nicholas Gessler’s term ‘intermediation’ to denote an emergent pattern re-represented in a new medium, which then generates another emergent pattern in another medium, and so on. This leads to a multi-layered system or what Hayles calls a ‘dynamic heterarchy’ based on feedback and feedforward loops. These ‘different levels continuously inform and mutually determine each other’, end quote. Hayles cites the example of a mother’s body forming of fetus and the fetus reciprocally reforming the mother’s body. Although she posits intermediation between humans and computers as a perspective for understanding electronic literature, the principle is also relevant to understanding vegetal cinematography through the emergent dynamics between plant and moving image. Another useful framework for theorizing intermedial ethics as Stacy Alaimo’s elaboration of ‘trans- corporeal subjectivity’ in her book ‘Exposed’ from 2016. Alaimo points to emergent systems in which, quote, ‘bodies extend into places and places deeply affect bodies’, end quote. In the new materialist sense, places and bodies are agents. By extension, I argue, plant and moving image are bodies deeply affecting and mutually determining one another. Intermedial ethics accordingly arises at the conjunction of heterogeneous media. Conceptualized broadly as continuously in- informing agents, reciprocally lending shape to one another, sustaining an emergent system, yet resisting the utilitarianist domination of the nonhuman through technologized interventions. I suggest intermedial vegetal ethics as a way of thinking beyond the dominating, enframing, disclosing and deciphering of plants by representational media including the moving image. Rather than the imposition of human temporality on vegetal temporality through the time-lapse, I consider the possibility of the plant co-engendering the moving image as part of an emergent system, as part of the media ecology, of mutually determining human and non-human agents. My idea connects to recent work on plant ethics focused on reasserting the agency of vegetal life and reclaiming the plant from its cultural and philosophical relegation as setting, scene and scenery. This area of environmental ethics supplies a counterforce to the unbridled exploitation of plant life as quasi-mechanical matter without a life of its own. Echoing Pillsbury’s attention to the life struggles of plants, Michael Marder observes that, quote, ‘we fail to detect the slightest resemblances to our life in them and as a consequence of this failure routinely pass a negative judgment on their worth’, end quote. Intermedial vegetal ethics then would examine the ethical treatment of plants in and by the moving image while also signalling the potential of generative co-poiesis between flora and film, both as media in their own right. What kinds of ethics emerge in plant cinematography when the plant begins to occupy a position as contributing subject? I now turn to examples in the time-lapse documentary mode produced between 1910 and 2012, rather than narrative or fictional film. Much has been recently written on the vegetal dimensions of the latter genre, including in reference to Hitchcock’s thriller ‘Rear Window’ from 1954, but my interest here is in the botanical documentary. Let’s look at a one-minute clip from British naturalist and filmmaker Frank Percy Smith’s eight-minute-long ‘The Birth of the Flower’, from 1910. Smith innovated time-lapse techniques in landmark documentaries such as ‘The Birth of a Flow,er’ and ‘The Germination of Plants’ becoming one of the first cinematographers to record the opening of a flower bud. In the 1920s, he also produced the popular ‘Secrets of Nature’ series. But Smith was not working in isolation. In 1906, the US Department of Agriculture began to investigate time-lapse photography of plant growth as a means to educate farming communities about plant breeding. These films constitute what Scott Curtis calls ‘agri-pop’, bringing scientific advances to popular audiences through the medium of film. Smith devised specific time-lapse and micro-cinematographic techniques that enabled the production of ‘The Birth of a Flower’. The structure of the film makes use of the names of flowers under observation, hyacinth, crocus, snowdrop, onion flower, narcissus, lily, garden anemones, and rose as well as the duration of their respective blossoming. The opening sequence depicts two hyacinths, which required three days to flower. Each flower opens in its own manner with its own signature. The petals of the right-hand hyacinth flare exuberantly outward whereas those of the left-hand hyacinth are more hesitant and contracted. The creatureliness of the flowers in their temporal compression, that is, in their approximation of animal mobilities, enthralled early audiences, but still mesmerize viewers today. Crocuses and tulips opening and sunlight required one hour each. The swelling forms break suddenly with the eruption of petals. Thus the poiesis of plants integrades with the poiesis of the moving image, the body of each medial agent reciprocally in-forming the other. Bryony Dixon claims that, between Smith and Attenborough, quote, ‘in a hundred years almost nothing has changed technically, natural color as opposed to tinting is about the only real improvement, which may explain the longevity of Percy Smith’s innovative film’, end quote. The balletic and hypnotic quality of the film moreover suits musical accompaniment, as we also see later in Attenborough’s film. The photographer Arthur Clarence Pillsbury produced a time-lapse film to advocate the protection of Yosemite wildflowers threatened with extinction. These images were first aired at the Superintendent’s Conference at Yosemite in October of 1912. The first colorized version of this film was shown for Pillsbury’s 1921 lecture tour and I will play a short clip now. Pillsbury worked at Yosemite as a photographic shop proprietor between 1906 and 1927. Motivated principally by the ethical rather than aesthetic concern for wildflower conservation, he began experimenting with motion pictures of Sierra wildflowers. This indeed required technical innovation. In ‘Picturing Miracles’ he explains that, quote, ‘I conceived the idea of making the individual pictures in the film at one or two second intervals. The flowers had their own natural movements, if I could only picture them’, end quote. Pillsbury’s commentary in ‘Picturing Miracles’ is unique for its combination of technical innovation, ethical drive, and phenomenological insight into the lives of flowers. Through the observer’s acquisition of the language of flowers, plant lives become as discernible as text in a book. And he continues, ‘I have found the whole life story of a flower as dramatically intriguing as to watch nature unfolding step by step in our own lives or follow it chapter by chapter in a well-written novel’, end quote. There is an acute sense of Goethean or Thoreavian botanical phenomenology in observations such as, quote, ‘Growth seems to be in stages of rest and action… Suddenly, after quite a period of apparent rest, the petals fly apart and almost fully open it but a few seconds’, end quote. This careful attending to wildflowers over time also prompts the affective state of botanical mourning, and Pillsbury again: ‘Unhappily this Primrose is now almost extinct in the Yoesmite meadows. The mowing machine took its toll’, end quote. In light of the fact that these efforts began in the 1910s, Pillsbury’s time-lapse innovations, understood in conjunction with his written reflections, represent an early appeal for plants in the history of American conservation. ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’, from 1990 is a series of ten 24-minute films directed and co-written by Michael Edols and produced by Mark Falzon. I include the film in this discussion to indicate the range of works categorizable as botanical documentary and plant cinematography. Although not employing time-lapse, the film investigates plant life in terms of Indigenous and Anglo-European interactions with the flora of the Australian landmass, Let’s look at a clip from Episode 3 ‘Our Botanical History’. You can see the camera’s slow panning of the vegetated landscape. With its emphasis on human relations to plants, ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’ provides a counterpoint to the reductive emphasis on the time-lapsed flower, extracted from the whole plant, especially from its roots and rhizomes, and from its ecological milieu. As a contemporary example of botanical cinematography, the film suggests that a post-colonial ethics of vegetal life involves renewed awareness of the diverse cultural histories of plants apart from, or independent of, their scientific, aesthetic and utilitarian values. The role of the moving image, then, is to narrativise the heterogeneous stories of plants and to enable the passing of botanical knowledge from generation to generation. This sort of ethics is made possible through the film’s focus on the whole plant and human interactions with it, a focus that is attenuated to one degree or another in the time-lapse mode of Pillsbury, Smith and, here, David Attenborough. Returning now to ‘The Kingdom of Plants’ as my final example of botanical documentary. The 3D film comprises three episodes: Life in the Wet Zone, Solving the Secrets, and, the third is Survival. There is a conspicuous ethics of plants, evident in scenes of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and therein linking the film to the Pillsbury tradition of time-lapse motion pictures of Sierra wildflowers. Let’s view this one-minute trailer of the film. Like Pillsbury and Smith, Attenborough emphasizes the capacity of film to reveal the otherwise hidden lives of plants in phrases such as ‘reveal their bizarre and beautiful truths’. He also implores viewers to, quote, ‘witness a hidden realm’, end quote. The technological medium acts upon the plant subject to render its world visible through the temporal compression of the time-lapse mode essentially unchanged in 100 years notwithstanding the development of live-action time-lapse, high-speed infrared, macro and micro photography, and other techniques, some of which were developed specifically for this film. So, film, in the Attenborough sense, enables us to ‘explore why flowers are masters of seduction’. There’s a triumphalist sense of the human enframing the flower, coupled to the long-standing trope of decoding the secret language of plants with film as an instrument for decoding that language. Notwithstanding us technological chic, Attenborough’s documentary can be regarded as a relatively recent incarnation of the more than 100-year-old lineage of plants cinematography within the broader context of the environmental documentary tradition. However, another way to approach this film and the intermediality of flower and film is through the framework of intermedial vegetal ethics. The dynamic heterarchy of the film as a system reflects different agents continuously informing and mutually determining one another. The film as one of the agents in the ecology of the moving image is engaged in a co-poiesis, lending its bodily form to the bodily form of the technologies the flowers, in the Alaimo sense of trans- corporeal subjectivity. We’re thinking about film and flower as subjects in this dynamic heterarchic system. Intermedial vegetal ethics enables critique of botanical documentary as the material upshot of vegetal poiesis. Now to conclude on Pillsbury’s idea of instilling love for plants through the moving image. I’ve discussed these four examples of botanical documentary approximately spanning the history of film and specifically ‘The Birth of a Flower’, ‘The Wildflowers’, ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’ and ‘Kingdom of Plants’. The films of Smith, Pillsbury and Attenborough make generous use of time-lapse innovations to compress the protracted temporality of plants (i.e., taking three weeks to flower rather than ten seconds in the film version of the flowering). The example of ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’ with its lack of time-lapse and attention to human-plant exchanges instead counters the flora-centrism of time-lapse mode with its excision of the flower from the body of the plant in its environment. Time-lapse is very much a process of excision. I’ve proposed intermedial vegetal ethics as an approach to film allowing us to critique botanical documentary as the material upshot of vegetal poiesis rather than as always-already a mode of dominating and determining plants. In other words an ethical reading of botanical film begins with recognizing the plant as a generative, contributing subject in its own right. Instilling a love for plants through time-lapse always risks reductionism and techno-utopianism. That should be balanced by an intermedial vegetal ethics of whole plants in places to the extent possible enacted in a time of the plants and the places themselves. Thank you. Thanks very much.

2 thoughts on “‘To Instill a Love for Them’: Plant Cinematography and Botanical Ethics (ASLE Ecomedia)”

  1. It’s a great referral video for plants and photography 😍 Really appreciating for this informative video and your hardworking 👍👍Have a great day 🌸👍💚

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *