Deep within the heart of monOrchid lies the Bokeh gallery, a hidden gem currently displaying the artistic photography exhibition of J.W. Fike, “Photographic Survey of the Wild Edible Botanicals of Arizona.”
The show title reads as from an early Audubon Society catalog, and Fike’s work clearly seeks to merge the scientific with the artistic- a history stretching to the medieval tradition of herbariums. The large photographs are striking in their deliberate combination of utility and artistry. Each large image is a distinctly rendered black and white aerial photograph of various plant species, with delicate roots and stems exposed. The black background forces emphasis on the image, while the branching tendrils of the individual plants lend complexity to the simple and stark monochromatic frame.
Shading and contrast provide the viewer with an elaborate sense of detail, while the exacting nature of the photography sets the stage for the most engaging part of the exhibit: each of the plants displayed are enhanced by specific elements of color, which seem at first to be an artistic touch. In fact, the colored parts are the edible parts of the plant, ranging from roots to stems and leaves. This use of the images as both artistic exploration of form and as a means to quickly and easily educate the viewer as to the uses of the plant vaults these images into a category of their own.
In the case of the humble, and oft-weeded dandelion, Fike’s color enhancement of the black and white photograph highlights the deep brown roots, the green leaves and the nodding yellow crown as edible parts of this blood-purifying plant. Despite the muted natural tones of the plant, the sheer contrast with the uniformly dark matte background brings a vibrant liveliness to the images.
In an age of increasing disconnect from our sources of sustenance, the simplicity of the work functions deliberately as a reminder of our intimate and necessary connection with our environment. With the ancient Hippocratic dictum of “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” clearly in mind, the artist has traveled across the country surveying “over one hundred” plants and seeking to re-create (or perhaps create) working knowledge of the edible elegance beneath our feet.
The artist’s exploration of the subject matter goes well beyond a backyard curiosity, and Fike has ambitions toward a significant project of a similar design, one which could serve to facilitate a practical and perhaps even philosophical re-engagement with our everyday environment. The plants depicted in the gallery are often species introduced to Arizona, further highlighting the symbiotic relationship of humans and water that has altered the native flora and environment we consider to be “natural.”
Ultimately, the photographs are visually engaging on their own merit. The further complexity of botanical categorization and social education can be set aside for the sheer pleasure of the image, but knowing the intent of the artist to explore the many layers of possibility for artistic creation lends a depth and pleasure to the viewing.