We don’t usually think of photography as a medium that is sketched. Yes, some photographers draw or sketch their ideas for tableau images before creating the photographs that fulfill these sketches. But the medium itself resists sketching; rather, it encodes repetition, difference across sameness, shots that are discarded not so much developing toward the shots that are kept as rather all alike depending on contingencies, accidents of chance. Through its contingency, its close marriage with chance and accident, photography is the medium of time. William Henry Fox Talbot, arguably the principal inventor of photography, was moved to create the medium because of his impatience with the art of sketching by hand. He sought a medium that allowed nature to “draw herself” as he put it, photography as the pencil of light.

Photographer Joyce Tenneson is a master, or, better put, a mistress of the photographic portrait. Best known for her portrait photographs of human beings, she has also created luminous portraits of trees, in her Gold Trees series; of flowers, in her Radiant Beings series; and of time itself in her Flower Portraits series. My focus in discussing this series, Flower Portraits, is the three-image set of rose portraits embedded in the series. In this three-image set, Tenneson photographs nine rose heads in neat rows of three and columns of three just as they are beginning to blossom, just past their full blossom, and as they begin to wilt. Capturing time’s movement through the flowers, Tenneson sketches temporality manifest in roses, throwing into relief the question of which of the three images in the series is the sketch and which the fully realized work of art, which image is prefatory, which conclusive.

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Joyce Tenneson, Rose (second of three) from Flower Portraits: Life Cycle of Beauty, inkjet print, 50.7 x 42.3 cm, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Is the sketch the roses just before they blossom, the time of anticipation? Is it the roses as they begin to wilt, the time of their disappearing? When are the roses fully visible and realized as image? We might be tempted to seek the nine roses in blossom as a “finished” work with the crushed and post-blossoming images of flowers as less than the blossoming image. And yet in these temporal sketches that reveal the parts of time from which we’re trained to look away or consider less important (the time before, the time after), Tenneson locates an affecting and haunting beauty that bolsters with poignance the concept of a recognizable as “finished” work, the central frame of time, the idea of the roses’ full bloom.

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Joyce Tenneson, Rose (third of three) from Flower Portraits: Life Cycle of Beauty, inkjet print, 50.7 x 42.3 cm, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Roses of course have long been symbols in Western iconography of youth and femininity and above all of the Virgin Mary, through whom the Church, Christ, and the faithful are believed to be joined (for those who adhere to the faith). The rose, as symbol of mystical union, Tenneson removes from Catholic iconography and commandeers to raise questions about how we define a portrait. Because how we define a portrait is also how we define who and what is important to look at, who and what to look at reverently.

Taking photographic portraits of flowers, Tenneson does not so much imbue the flowers with psyches as grant our access to this vision, her vision, of flowers as beings utterly separate from and not conscripted to our human ways. I return to the question of which image is the sketch, which is preliminary, and which is the fully realized “work of art.” We are habituated to the belief that it is the full and complete image, or accomplished act, or successful person, that is important and what comes before or after is less important. But Tenneson, in teaching us how to see flowers as beings sovereign and separate from us, beings that do not need us to see them, also teaches us how to see time as never and always preparatory, and never and always aftermath: time is time, keeping its own pace, a pace that does not cohere with our narratives of before and after. In recognizing photography’s capacity to act as time’s sketchbook, Tenneson’s portraits of roses before and after the bloom re-envision photography’s relationship to the sketchbook, allowing us to understand the photographic image as the haunting trace of time—neither now nor later nor before, but always taking place in the gap where we feel time’s unconcern. This tender side is the subject of her rose portraits. Utilizing the trope of the sketch, the gesture of before and after, Tenneson creates a set of three photographs that exemplify the photographic medium’s capacity to reveal the vulnerability of the material world in time.


Image at top: Joyce Tenneson, Rose (first of three) from Flower Portraits: Life Cycle of Beauty, inkjet print, 50.7 x 42.3 cm, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.