Photography: Ken Marten’s World of Plants
Nestled amongst the brassy humblebrags that speed past vertically in my Instagram feed, Ken Marten’s images of botanic related goodness yell at me with their quietness. Ken’s photographic eye and sense of design is evident, as is the simplicity and genuine curiosity in his pictures. Great qualities indeed, but Ken’s images also sing with the not-so-common-on-Instagram attributes of vulnerability and heart. As a total KM fanboy I was eager to ask him a bunch of questions that might help me understand why I am so drawn to the world within his photographs.
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your life with plants? I’m passionate about vegetation in all its forms, either as a gardener (indoors and outdoors), a florist or as an amateur photographer. As a former floral designer at London’s McQueen’s Flowers in the early noughties, I started taking pictures of my creations and sharing them on Flickr, drawing in a loyal audience as a kind of precursor to Instagram. I felt I’d explored flowers enough and briefly moved on to plants in 2012, particularly when used in terrariums with my own company Hermetica London. I discovered that love and business don’t mix well, so I now keep my personal passion for plants separate to making an income.
How would you describe your photography? Perhaps the only common thread in my photography is that vegetation in some form is usually the subject, but style and technique vary quite widely, dictated by whatever equipment I have on hand (be it a mobile phone or a DSLR camera) and whatever mood or style the subject suggests to me. I am particularly drawn to the interface between the man-made and the natural, which can be in the form of weeds and climbers overtaking an abandoned building, or photographing a plant-filled window of someone’s house, or perhaps an office, launderette or takeaway.
How does your background in floristry affect your photographs?Floristry and photography have affected each other equally. I quickly realised that what looks good to the eye can look indistinct in a photograph, so I learned to adapt my style of floristry to show better in photographs. There seems to be a whole new generation of ‘Instagram florists’ who seem to know almost intuitively how photography and flower arrangements work together. It’s surprisingly difficult to create something that both looks like an old master still-life painting in a photograph and works as a lasting arrangement of flowers in real-life, without using some hidden mechanics to keep the stems in water. This look can also be hard to achieve as many flowers are only available in larger quantities – the ‘old master’ style usually involved a wide range of disparate flower shapes, but only one or two of each.
What plants are you excited by? Having learned how to arrange flowers that look great in pictures, I decided to up the ante for myself by arranging plants in confined glass containers in such a way that the plants were happy and would grow, yet they would also look good when photographed. I found cacti and succulents by far the easiest to work with, both in terms of practicality and aesthetics. There’s not any one particular plant that excites me, but how it grows does. Plants grown and bought commercially usually lack character, or wabi-sabi, if you like.
When a plant grows out from beneath a rock or in a crack in a wall, or when a plant gets damaged and grows in a peculiar manner, that’s what interests me. I love plants growing in an unplanned way in unexpected places.”
Where do you turn to for inspiration? I find limitless inspiration the moment I leave the house and look at the world around me. I also find a great deal of inspiration online which shows me how to translate real life inspiration into something that can be shared. I hardly, if ever, feel uninspired and often struggle to contain and direct it. We live in interesting times – even with scant or limited resources our activities can have a long reach. For two years by choice I lived virtually without money. I found that even without the funds to catch a bus or buy a coffee, I could take pictures that could be appreciated anywhere from Japan to Iceland. What other people might have considered to be limiting circumstances, I found to be quite the opposite; I was liberated from the crippling distraction that comes with a freedom of choice.
You have quite an active Instagram feed. How has interacting with an online audience impacted your work? Instagram is a way of earthing my creative energy and getting as much back from it as I give. I feel very fortunate to have an audience for my work, no matter how modest it might seem compared to some of the more popular accounts within the same circle of plant obsession. I’ve come across some hugely talented people on Instagram with hardly any followers or likes. While you can’t totally ignore the number of followers or likes, in reality, they’re quite meaningless as a measure of talent or relevance. Occasionally I might get a direct message from someone who might not have ‘liked’ any of my pictures, or that I was even aware of them following me, telling me how much they love my feed; it only serves as a reminder not to allow likes or followers to shape what I do or trap me into repeating myself.
It seems that you have spent considerable time exploring with camera in hand – how has this time been of benefit to you? As soon as the iPhone came along and Instagram followed it, a whole new world of photographic possibility opened up. Up to that point I was only comfortable taking pictures in familiar settings/conditions and the process was somehow ‘formulaic’, for want of a better word, in that I knew what worked for me and stuck to it. Then I saw people taking incredible pictures that I didn’t think possible with a camera phone which made me realise that my bad pictures had nothing to do with the technical capabilities of my camera, or the conditions of the place I was photographing. Instead, my way of shooting needed to adapt.
The development of mobile phone photography has made me far more intrepid and confident. Whenever I’m faced with conditions that seem unlikely to yield a good picture, I try to shift my approach and work with what I have. I’ll often end up with a picture that looks nothing like what I’d normally do and that’s so refreshing.
What environments are you drawn to? I’m magnetically drawn to abandoned buildings and botanical gardens/glasshouses. I would really love to tackle the wide open space of a desert. I went to Lanzarote a few years ago and I loved the raw, primal quality of the lava fields, devoid of all vegetation and signs of human activity. I saw the sky in a completely different context – it seemed ancient and unfamiliar, like something out of prehistory. Equally I’m deeply inspired by my local environment. I don’t live in the most scenic part of Wales, but there are hills, forests, the sea, as well as heavy industry: a photographer’s playground!
What role does light play in your photography? I always shoot in a manual mode which goes back to when I shot on film with my father’s old 35mm Pentax as a kid. I was careless and broke the light metering needle, so learned to trust my instincts on exposure/aperture. Generally, I prefer to underexpose my pictures as this tends to lend them a cinematic/analogue quality. I find underexposed pictures of plants to appear more three dimensional, lending them presence that is much easier to achieve in the flat, ‘boring’ light of an overcast day, or in the blue hour after the sun has gone down. However, it depends on the subject and conditions. Recently I photographed a restored Victorian pier near Cardiff in bright sunlight. In this setting it seemed appropriate to go the other way and slightly overexpose the pictures, pushing the scene even further in the edit to blow out the highlights for a faded, pastel and minimal look.
Any hot tips for making better plant photographs? What makes a good photograph, be it a plant or anything else is of course highly subjective in my opinion. I’ve admired pictures of plants and flowers shot out of focus, lit with a glaring flash so that there is little more than a silhouette and a hard shadow. What bores me is when someone follows all the rules for ‘good’ photography and produces something that somehow lacks heart or conviction. Our ego loves things to be perfect and free of mistakes, but that can easily get in the way of creativity and sincerity. The results, no matter what technique applied, look contrived.
Generally, I take pictures according to how I feel about a subject and pay scant regard to the rules until I come up against a limitation to my method.”
Only then will I search online for a ‘how to’ and take from it only what I need. Sometimes I will deliberately attempt to imitate the work of someone I admire: Nick Knight’s rose pictures, for example. I usually come away with a deeper appreciation for what they do and something new I can apply to my own work. It’s impossible to avoid imitation or influence, just a matter of degree of how aware of it I am.