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Podcast cover Fritillaria icones Bridging Science and Art with Laurence Hill

Fritillaria Icones – Bridging Science and Art

Zooming in onto Fritillaria

Laurence Hill has dedicated the past nineteen years of his (free)time to document fritillaria plants in detail using his photographic skills. He has made this extensive and marvellous collection of botanical photographs on fritillaria available on his webpage “Fritillaria Icones” where scientists and people with botanical interest can freely use his resources. Laurence has also used his photographs for creating pieces of composite art for various exhibits in the UK and Poland. In this first (of two) part of my interview with Laurence he shared
– how his botanical photography journey started with a garlic plant by the road in Greece
– what it needs to take high resolution, detailed botanical photographs
– how the life history of bulbous plants can be very special
– how fritillaria plants from different provenances differ
– what made him establish the Fritillaria Icones website
– how he sees himself contributing to science with his botanical photography

In the second part of this interview, to be released on 2021-06-09, Laurence will share insights and learnings from transforming botanical photography into pieces of art for exhibits.

Botanical photography – a meticulous process

Laurence grows most of the fritillaria plants from seed in his greenhouse. He then photographs them while in pots  in portrait format. For this Laurence recommends using an off-white background. Afterwards comes the meticulous work of carefully digging up and cleaning the bulb. This process can take several hours. Images of the fritillaria bulb are taken and will be later on fused to the upper parts to create the full portrait. When the fritillaria flower is then photographed in detail, Laurence needs to work fast as the plant will dehisces during this part of the process. The depth of field at high magnification can be as short as 1mm. However, the plant parts are usually thicker than that. Therefore Laurence takes photographs at different focal points for all types of images, even when photographing a single leaf. After that  comes a meticulous work to stack the images and correct for mistakes in the computer. You can see a series of different focal images of a Fritillaria kurdica flower and the result of the stacked image here below. To get the entire detailed portrait of the plant including overall portrait, bulb and flower, Laurence works for about 15 hours. It’s indeed very involved process.

Documentation of the photographic process of Fritillaria kurdica
Documentation of the photographic process with different focus points in subsequent images and the resulting composite image of Fritillaria kurdica. Origin: Laurence Hill

The life-history of bulbous plants

After 19 years of growing and photographing fritillaria, Laurence has developed an eye for his floral companions. He shares his insights into how bulbs are different than other plants. They don’t just grow from a juvenile into an adult phase, reproduce and die. No they can move in and out of adult phases, live for as long as hundred years and even get dormant (sleeping) when needed. They save resources to survive catastrophic events for as long as three years. There’s still much to be learned about the life of a bulb. Biologists often look at the life-cycle of a plant, from seed to plant to flower. Laurence however has gotten intrigued by the life-history of a plant moving in and out of different stages from year to year. If you remember the first episode on our fritillaria series, Håkan Rydin, Uppsala University, shared that at the King’s meadow, only about 30% of the plants actually flower in the same year. The varying phases of fritillaria’s life-history may explain this.

Fritillaria leaf composite
Art piece 'Deconstructed Fritillaria' from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2017. This fritillaria leaf composite images shows 24 leaves of different fritillaria species. Every leaf is a merge of 4-6 differently focussed photographs to increase depth of focus. The entire piece of art took 70 hours to create, not including growing the plants. Origin: Laurence Hill

Variation between species and populations

Composite images like the one above, which Laurence Hill made for the Chelsea flower show in 2017, show the variation of anatomical details between different fritillaria species. In this example, it’s the leaves. Laurence does not only look for variation between species, but since more recently also between provenances. That means between plants of the same species that have grown in different locations. To this end he has grown 10 different Fritillaria meleagris plants from Russia, Hungary, Croatia, Austria and different locations in the UK.   They are morphologically different and they also flower at different times, despite being grown all under the same conditions in his greenhouse in the UK.

Be inspired

Laurence and I discussed many more aspects also related to his wonderful resource, the Fritillaria Icones webpage, the idea behind, the challenges and his collaboration with scientists.

I invite you to brew a cup of your favourite beverage and to listen to this inspiring, passionate and philosophical interview either here on our site or through our channel on Youtube, Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast or Deezer. Next week Laurence and I will dive deeper into the arts skills he developed for preparing pieces that the above for exhibits. He also shares where he finds inspiration and how he can express historical or societal subjects of actuality through his botanical artwork. A fascinating story of how science meets art.

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