The temporal nature of a good bloom is in many ways one of it’s most enticing charactersitics - you know when you get a glimpse up close of an unfurled flower in all it’s glory that it’s time on this earth is inherently limited. At their most powerful, flowers give us the chance to pause and ponder the fleeting nature of beauty (seen through the beauty of nature!).
Luckily, the universal allure of flowers mean that they pop up all over the place in more lasting mediums: here we salute some of the individual stems to have secured their place in history, thanks to the unwavering gaze of a camera lens.
Billie Holiday with white gardenia in her hair
There’ll always be the voice of course - smokey tones melting into outright anguish and raw emotion at times - but beyond that there’ll always be her favourite way of garnishing her stage presence: the white gardenias that would sit in her hair.
It’s almost too perfect an accompaniment: beautiful like Holiday’s voice in the most unassuming of ways. Her voice never received the embellishments of formal training and likewise the flowers in her hair were presented plainly as they came - the simple beauty of a crisp white bloom, plucked and positioned just so. To add further plain-spoken magic to things, the story goes that she only started wearing the flowers when an accident with a pair of curling tongs pre-show forced Holiday to find something that could quickly cover the bald patches. Sure beats, ‘well I was at a music festival and everyone was doing it…’
Tilda Swinton as shot by Tim Walker
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect pairing than Tilda Swinton and Tim Walker - intensely charismatic and convention-defying actor meets… intensely charismatic and convention-defying photographer.
Together, the pair created a phantasmagoric photo series inspired by the great surrealists: tastes of Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and Remedios Varo all rise to the surface in an homage to the bizarre jungle paradise built by Edward James in the heart of Mexico. Swinton poses amidst oddly fashioned dioramas, perhaps most strikingly against a backdrop of blue skies while disembodied hands waft roses across what appear to be ecstatic throes. The image at once captures a deeper beauty in both the actor and the flowers: both wonderfully natural and disarmingly otherworldly all at once.
Before she became synonymous with (and subsequently, to her credit distanced herself from) a particularly expensive style of Hermes handbag, Jane Birkin was, like Holiday, one of the original girls with flowers in her hair. Unlike Holiday however, Birkin typified the swinging side of the sixties - all transcendent idealism and decadent downfalls. Making her film debut in the iconic counterculture movie Blow Up, the flowers that adorned Birkin’s hair seemed the perfect symbol of fragile freedoms that defined the era.
John And Yoko Bed-In
Sticking with the hippie era, is there any image more iconic of that generation’s ideals than John and Yoko sitting in a bed together, draped in white and surrounded by masses of flowers? Realising their wedding would draw huge amounts of press attention, the couple decided to turn their honeymoon into two week-long ‘bed-ins’ - an extension of the sit-in as a form of non-violent protest, to which the world’s entire press were invited. Readily they came too, with many apparently thinking they would be watching John and Yoko having sex (this was in the aftermath of their Two Virgins album cover, which featured the pair completely naked and caused controversy amongst the more uptight members of society).
Instead, they found, as John (modestly) put it: “two angels in bed, with flowers all around us, with peace and love in our heads.”
Charlie Chaplin in City Lights
This is cheating a bit because it’s actually a film still rather than a straight photographic image - but what an image it makes, Chaplin’s hapless tramp down in the gutter yet cradling a fragile flower for all it’s worth. The moment comes towards the end of City Lights, which contains one of the greatest, most moving endings to any movie and is, to an old romantic like me, quite possibly the silent comic’s finest accomplishment.
The movie came out in 1931, a silent movie in a time when talkies were already the dominant force in American cinema. Its farcical tale of a downtrodden tramp who falls for a beautiful, blind flower girl struck a chord though with depression-era viewers and it became a huge commercial and critical success (after a turbulent initial period in which Chaplin had to put up his own personal money to fund the advertising). It’s difficult to capture the magic of this picture without spoiling the movie, but the flowers (along with a score that draws on composer Jose Padilla’s La Violetera) lend a poignant, delicate beauty to the black and white, dialogue-free images on the screen.
Tilda Swinton - shot by Tim Walker for W Magazine
Jane Birkin - from Vogues Magazine online