v4.4 / William Scully’s Botanical Insights

When I walk down a trail in the forest I am drawn along, looking forward, repeatedly saying I will turn back only after I reach the next corner. There is always a quiet voice telling me that there is something more lying ahead, just beyond my sight, undiscovered. Over the years my photographic studies have often felt that way: each one leading me down a slightly changing path; each one enticing me a bit further with a hint of hidden potential.

I did not set out to be a photographer of plants; I simply let my curiosity and camera lead me to explore the subjects I found most compelling. Reflecting on my past work I find that my primary motivation has been to reveal the beauty of gesture and design in nature, particularly that which is both overlooked and close at hand. It seems logical that I drifted toward plants as a subject, given their proximity and diversity.

My path has led me from my earliest work with underwater color photography to (literally) observing my subjects in a different light with an infrared camera. What had been an interest in color and complexity evolved into a study of form and shadow. In time my developing appreciation for botanical subjects grew into a desire to know them more intimately and holistically. This brought me to my latest microscopic work studying shape and pattern and discovering the beautiful logic and efficiency that undergirds nature’s design.

My curiosity to know the natural world and compulsion to express my small discoveries in the form of art have become inextricably intertwined, each leading and feeding the other. At times they bring me in sight of those almost-missed places, and there I observe and record with my camera.

—William Scully, 2019

Christoph Irmscher on William Scully’s Hornworts, Nymphaea, and Microbotanicals

The Massachusetts-born photographer William Scully is fascinated by the things in nature that cannot and will not normally be seen, that, captured by his camera, open up and bloom into mysterious phantasmagorical shapes. Wading into the tidal marshes of Cape Cod, diving into the weedy ponds of Truro, watching, over the course of several seasons, the drama of the light on the shore unfold and paint itself into his slow-shutter camera, he has become a fully vested citizen of what nineteenth-century geologists once liked to call “America the Old World.” Nothing matters in that new old world but what we see and how we see it.

Hornworts are humble, ubiquitous underwater plants, well-familiar to aquarium-owners. Fast-growing, hardy, and infinitely useful residents of the world below the water’s surface, they work to keep algae at bay and oxygenate the water, benefiting the fish as well as the muskrat, which, according to an entry in Thoreau’s journal, uses the wads of soft plant mush that pad the river’s bed to fashion its house. Scully’s underwater views immerse us in a dense, pliable forest of dancing, swaying miniature trees, a case of Birnham woods already come to Dunsinane: the fulfillment of a dream that would be a nightmare were it not for all that abundant green-blue-black lushness.

Hornwort Study #1 © William Scully

As a child, landlocked and afraid even in my imagination of deep water, I compulsively collected those popular lenticular postcards of marine subjects: if you moved those glossy things fast enough, the small fish imprisoned in them would appear to flap their fins and corals would seem to wave enticingly their bony branches as if wanting to hug you. But Scully’s scenes are different, affording us glimpses of a world that exists entirely unto itself and registers intrusions into it by recoiling.

A second image from the hornwort series shows that wacky little tree nursery all a-tumble, the tiny trees transformed into a jumble of confused caterpillars, the whole sluggish landscape rocked by an unknown force, maybe the presence of the photographer’s body lingering right above it.

Hornwort Study #7 © William Scully

As if to detach himself mentally from the velvet slushiness of his hornwort images, Scully, for his next series, revisited the pond with an infrared camera. He caught the ghostly fragments of water lilies drifting near the pond’s surface, snowy-white leaves and wispy stems performing complicated ballet moves in a sea of black. Some look like stripped-down Calder mobiles gracefully suspended in gravity-free space. These ascetic, underwater Mapplethorpes, especially when viewed as a series, combine to form a spectral alphabet of sorts, a black-and-white puzzle never to be completed, not even in our minds (see http://www.scullyphotography.com/portfolio-ir.html).

Scully’s most recent series, “Microbotanicals,” at first strikes the viewer as a complete departure from his previous work. Not taken underwater or even at water’s edge, these new photographs feature slide-mounted botanical specimens, cross-sections or longitudinal views of stems and pistils, cones and capsules of plants, as seen through the lens of a microscope. And what a lot of work has gone into making these images! Unbelievably, each of them is a composite of hundreds of overlapping segments, all of which are, in turn, composites of a series of differently focused photographs of the same small part of the tiny specimen. A finished Scully “microbotanical,” then, is the result of hundreds, if not thousands of different exposures, forced into completeness by computer software, with the photographer’s wary eye serving as the final arbiter of quality. A triumph of technology, one might say, more so than a celebration of nature.

Yet that would be a premature assessment. Scully cites the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s magnificent Art Forms in Nature (1899-1904) as a major inspiration behind this new work, and while Scully’s images stay closer to the scientific evidence than the exuberant geometric shapes Haeckel used to populate his plates, the underlying insight remains the same: when it comes to producing art, nature is light-years ahead of our attempts to understand it and find equivalences for it in our art. Scully’s microbotanicals, meticulous, stark, and joyful, give praise to the sheer complexity that resides in the tiniest parts of the plant kingdom, a tribute submitted in the same spirit of reverence as Scully’s earlier evocations of hornworts or water lilies.

Thus, a cross-section of the pistil of a basswood (Tillia americana), a composite of 430 images (magnification 64x), looks like a picture formed by an enchanted, weirdly monochromatic kaleidoscope. The image radiates kinetic energy, with bits and pieces either being flung out of, or about to be sucked into, all that glorious fuzzy, funky reddishness.

Tilia americana (pistil) © William Scully

And the pattern emerging from the cross section of the stem of a red clover or Trifolium (406 separate images, magnification 32x), floating in haloed splendor, looks more intricate than any mosaic floor found in ancient Pompeii.  No human hand has shaped this view; what Scully’s camera or the computer have done to produce it is, after all, little more than a game of catch-up.  For while we might have the capacity to destroy nature, we will not be able to fully recreate it. Even though sometimes we may, as Scully’s work demonstrates, get pretty damn close.