Botanical Inquiry: An Exhibition by Daniel Shipp

Daniel Shipp is an extremely talented artist, Planthunter collaborator, and in his own words ‘a meandering perfectionist’. His latest series of work, ‘Botanical Inquiry’ is being exhibited at Saint Cloche gallery in Sydney this week. This incredibly rich and haunting series of images is, amongst other things, a visual illustration of the curious conversation humans have with nature. In particular,  how we see it or not, and how we value it in our urban environments. Words can’t express how proud I am of The Planthunter’s small involvement in this phenomenal body of work….

I had a chat with Daniel about the series and exhibition. This is how it went:

So, Daniel, is it really true your Botanical Inquiry series was partially inspired by this story I wrote about the relationship between people and plants? If so, can I now call myself your botanical muse? Please! What else inspired it?

Of course! You are my Number One Plant Goddess Warrior Weirdo Muse.

I attribute much of my inspiration for this series to content on The Planthunter website.  Apart from yourself and your writing, I discovered Robert John Thornton’s ‘Temple of Flora’ plates via The Planthunter and that was like…. a brain explosion. I am also really inspired the aesthetic of the mixed-use industrial/residential areas that I live and work in. Everything you see in the series is really just me showing what I like.

The series initially started with five images (Check them out here) and now you have made over 10. What spurred you on to keep exploring the concept?

I committed to a show! It’s so easy to busy myself with everything else going on in my work-life and put my own projects to the side, but having a date in the calendar gave me a structure to work towards. I’m a meandering perfectionist and enforcing a structure on myself cut down the over-thinking and ramped up the productivity.

Also, I still felt there was more of the story to be told, and there still is more. I’m constantly eyeing off all the great vacant blocks and rambling nature strips in my travels. As the seasons progress there are new plant stories popping up everywhere.

By the way, there are actually 11 images; one is not in the official catalogue. It’s called The People’s Edition and is my commitment to keeping some aspect of my work in a more general realm of accessibility for people who have been fans of the series but don’t have the space/budget for the bigger works. The People’s Edition is an edition of 100 prints, at 19.5 cm x 16.5 cm size and printed on museum etching paper. It will be signed and numbered like the bigger prints and is available only for sale at the gallery during the exhibition, for $125.

Is there a story you are trying to tell with the images or are they more of an exploration of ideas/perceptions/concepts?

As I get older I start to feel the reality that the generations that follow will gradually have less of the natural world to enjoy due to our gradual destruction of the environment. I’m learning to accept my small part in that destruction by living a life that involves a car, air travel, plastic gadgets and food bought in supermarkets for convenience. There’s a conflict there for me, and probably many others. I wanted to explore what that inner conflict might look like. I have also embraced that connecting with plants is in our DNA and if that means that your life only permits you to study the weeds on nature strips then you are still connecting with something innate. I feel that we nurture ourselves when we respect plants.

Botanical Inquiry 11 - ‘North Facing Gradient’ (The Peoples Edition)

What have you learnt about the natural world since embarking on the series?

I’ve enjoyed paying more attention to the seasonal changes in nature, and the joy of monitoring plants across their reproductive cycle.

What have you learnt about yourself since embarking on the series?

I’ve learnt that deadlines and collaborators are essential. I’ve learnt that the energy required to protect my studio days from distraction pays off in a big way.  I’ve also confirmed that I am happiest when left alone in the studio to shoot but I think I already knew that.

I have seen how these images are made in your studio, and it’s kind of like a mad photographers lab with layers and layers of plants, lights and a weird contraption that you constructed just for the production of these images. How did you come to creating such a set-up?

I’m a weirdo, you know that. Even as a kid I was trying to create illusions with photographs. I remember sticking a picture of Hagar the Horrible on a piece of glass and shooting a photo of my mother through it so that it looked like she was standing next to him.

I’ve always tried to reverse engineer optical tricks in cinema and I collect vintage ‘Cinefex’ and “American Cinematographer’ magazines because I am fascinated with old school ways of creating illusion as a way of telling stories. You know, Star Wars before it became all digital. Ew. The method has become part of the aesthetic because it lends so much atmosphere, muck and wonderful imperfection to the images. I would call that ‘soul’.

Can you share a little of the process of creating each image? How long does it take, do you have a plan for an image you want to make or do they just appear as you start playing with backgrounds, plants, etcetera?

It’s a minimum of one day, and sometimes it spills over if my subjects can take it. I keep a rolling hit list of plants or great places I’ve spotted in my travels. First thing on a shoot morning I’ll race around and fill the car with as many interesting plant specimens as possible. I bring everything to the studio and start laying out compositions against different backgrounds, and that’s when the story starts to evolve. I would normally find something and know that it is ‘hero’ material and try to build images around it. It’s a long, painstaking, and painful process that sometimes fails. Every image starts off looking like a disaster but I’ve learnt that I have to stay with it and keep pushing it. Some images are beyond redemption, and I have to learn when to make that call. It’s so intuitive and subjective it’s maddening.

How do you think not having a sense of smell affects the way you interact with the natural world? What about photography?

The natural world is totally about light and colour for me. I’ve never smelt the freshly cut grass, jasmine, or Eucalyptus on a hot day that everyone keeps banging on about. I don’t know what you mean so I don’t miss it. While you’re all on the ground with your face in a bunch of flowers I’m feeling the blue in the light as a small cloud passes. I would say that I have developed a heightened sensitivity to the colour of things, evolved as a result of my lack of smell, and I am so happy with that. I never feel like I am missing anything.

Whats next Mr Shipp?

I’d like ‘Botanical Inquiry’ to be seen in other cities. In the meantime, I’ve been commissioned to photograph an unrelated book and I’m really excited about switching gears and focusing on that project next.

We’re really excited to share this little video created by Elliott Toms from Benson Media exploring the process of making the Botanical Inquiry series. It’s gorgeous!

25th April – 3rd May
Saint Cloche
37 Macdonald Street, Paddington