Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones
The Outsider Genius Saved from Obscurity by Chance Discovery
Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson
Preface by Alice Waters
Thames and Hudson, 1998
Reviewed by Alan Sirulnikoff
Charles Jones is so much an “outsider” that it is safe to say that virtually no one was aware of his passionate photographic pursuit until a chance discovery by Sean Sexton (a photographic historian and collector) who found a trunk of Jones’ prints at an English market in 1981. Through Sexton’s luck, we now have this eloquent record.
The images in the book are detailed with a warm hue — reproduced from the original gold-toned gelatin silver prints. None of the original glass-plate negatives are known to have survived. In fact, his grandchildren reported that near the end of his life, Jones used his glass-plate negatives in the garden to protect young plants.
Charles Jones, the son of a master butcher, was born in England in 1866. He trained as a gardener and took various positions on private estates in England. It is thought that a number of the prints featured in the book were probably made between 1895-1905.
Though not much is known about Jones or his formal photographic training (if any), he clearly had a ‘good eye’ and a thorough understanding of the technical side of photography. Sadly, there are no notes, diaries or writings to reveal his inner thoughts or what inspired him to produce such a superb portfolio of the plant world. This beautifully produced book, put together by Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson, is one that I gladly return to frequently.
Interestingly, Jones chose to pose most of his subjects against a variety of neutral backgrounds rather than within nature. Vegetables and fruits are lovingly displayed with great attention given to lighting and composition. For this very private man, these creations were a display of passion through the medium of photography.
Was Jones influenced by other photographers of the day? One of his contemporaries was Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt’s hugely popular book Urformen der Kunst was published in 1928. However, where Blossfeldt believed that “the plant must be valued as a totally artistic and architectural structure” Jones’ relationship appears to have been more intimate and personal.
Though I knew of Blossfeldt’s work, my own “chance discovery” of Charles Jones occurred in the renowned Portland bookstore, Powells, 14 years after the book was first published. Upon entering the art books section, “Plant Kingdoms” was one of the first books to catch my eye. I quickly became immersed in the images, the story, and the coincidence of finding this book at the same time as I was working on my own Still Life series.
Recently I attended an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery by the contemporary photographer Patrick Faigenbaum. Naturally I was drawn to the still life images that were on display. An accompanying gallery description noted:
He observes the objects with deliberate slowness, treating figs, eggplants and lemons as he would people in his portraits, allowing them to gradually “reveal” themselves to him – a mere inanimate thing – a “nature morte” – becomes a “still life.
This description could equally apply to Charles Jones.
Jones’ images are often poetic; sensitive; and very finely composed. “Bean Runner” (pp. 26, 27) are two of many examples that exhibit a life beyond their simple title. Looking at Sugar Pea (p. 33), I can almost feel the leathery texture of the pods and the smooth pearl-like peas.
A memorable image will transport me or evoke lateral thinking. “Celery Standard Bearer” (p. 40) is one such example. A lone stock stands bound in front of a simple white background, creating the vision of a condemned man about to be executed. The adjacent photograph “Celery Wright’s White” (p. 41) — starkly lit against a dark background — exudes a tension and mood that extends far beyond its simple caption.
“Radish White Icicle” (p. 75) is a further example. Standing, seemingly balanced on their ‘toes’, the radishes huddle tightly together as if discussing an important secret. Are they discussing what an unusual and exceptional man is this Charles Jones?
Today we have endless and immediate options for inundating ourselves (and others) in a flood of often banal imagery. Jones clearly revered and contemplated his subjects and most surely loved the medium of photography.
Yet, so little is known about this man whose prints – since Sexton’s discovery of them – have been added to private and public collections and enjoyed a measure of fame: exhibited at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Musée de Elysée, Lausanne.
There is a joy in the mystery around Jones, especially in a time when we have become so used to having everything revealed with a simple click. Charles Jones died in Lincolnshire on November 15, 1959 at the age of 92. And though he may have taken most of his inner-most thoughts with him, he did leave a beautiful and poignant legacy for us to ponder.
Alan Sirulnikoff is a photographer living in Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada. See his Still Life photographs here.