Roses are the most operatic creatures in anyone’s garden. They require their own stage and demand exquisite attention—woe betide the rudely grasping hand. Budding daintily, they swell and burst forth in thrilling coloratura. Erotic suffusion is also in their repertoire: the pale-pink petals of an ancient alba rose inspired the name cuisses de nymphe émue, often translated for delicate ears as “thighs of a blushing nymph.” Perhaps no other flower has been so adored by artists. One thinks of the poets Robert Burns and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographers Edward Steichen and Irving Penn, and the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. By now, however, this lingering on genus Rosa carries the peril of sentimentality. Which makes photographer Nick Knight’s new show, “Roses”—at the Albion Barn, in Oxfordshire, England—even more glorious.
Knight, whose only tattoo is a rose, prefers to be called an “image maker,” befitting his restless technical and imaginative explorations. His rose images are billed as still lifes, but there is nothing still about them, just as there has never been a still moment in Knight’s lauded commercial and editorial fashion work. He started his career in the late 1970s, shooting pictures for a book called Skinhead, and went on to produce influential advertising campaigns with Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, and Yves Saint Laurent. Knight continues to collaborate creatively—he’s currently working on several projects with Kanye West. As for the recent video he made with John Galliano for Maison Margiela, it’s a mesmerizing, supersaturated acid trip, filmed in negative, and all about the movement and play and delight of light.
Knight’s work in “Roses”—shot in his home over many decades, the images colossally scaled (at least in contrast to the Instagram offerings that have teased his fans for years)—is also about light. And scent. And even sound. Indeed, synesthesia fascinates Knight. “I often say,” he muses, “that taking a photograph is like composing a melody.” Gazing languorously, we can hear the soft plump of petals falling on a table; we catch the headily sweet fragrance wafting around pistil and stamen. Here the rose is youthful, vital, frisky. There her satin ball gown is disheveled, her attention scattered. Here the diva is aging, in a state of fascinating dishabille (she knows the show is over). And there, under a mossy bell jar, a grouping captures the infinitely slow grace of dying.
Every summer since 1982, Knight has walked into his garden in a sun-drenched courtyard and cut a few blooms. Some are jammed into vessels—light through cut crystal supplies ornamentation. Others are simply laid on a kitchen table that sits in a “pool of light that’s magical.” Hours go by as he arranges, nudges, prods, watches, and waits. Where Knight’s fashion images are full of lively, swirling movement, his rose images capture the stately but ceaseless unspooling of life. “Roses,” at heart, is about paying attention. What a wonderful paradox that a luminary in the world of fashion, that most glittering and changeable of arts, should also be the one to remind us how ravishing is the experience of noticing what’s growing on the garden wall.
Dominique Browning, formerly the editor of House & Garden, is an associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.