Interview with Jayne Parker about 'Amaryllis- a study'

By Francisco Algarín Navarro

Amaryllis - a study (Jayne Parker, 2020). © Jayne Parker.

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I would like to ask you about your interest in botany. I was wondering if you have ever done any kind of research. If I'm not mistaken, you studied sculpture. For example, in the case of Amaryllis - a study, did you undertake any particular research or did you already know very well this family of amaryllis before working?

Firstly, I would like to thank you for suggesting this conversation and for your detailed reflection on my film. Your questions have prompted me to articulate aspects of my film making that would usually have gone unsaid. It is wonderful that you considered my film so carefully––thank you. Yes, I studied sculpture as a student. My knowledge of botany is as a lay person and rudimentary. It comes from things that I have read or looked at in books or online. If I am interested in something, I try to find out about it, but I am always looking for something that resonates with whatever it was that sparked my interest in the first place, that brings depth and meaning beyond the surface. I am certainly drawn to bud, leaf and flower forms, the shape of pollen, and their intrinsic qualities––the extraordinary nature of flowers and plants. I love the intensity and care of observation within botanical illustration. I filmed the footage for Amaryllis – a study several years ago, and chose the common ‘red lion’ variety for its bright red petals and yellow pollen. It is an extraordinary bulb originating in South Africa. Its rate of growth and the strength of the vertical shoot that produces the flowers is astounding. I like how the flower buds swell inside the green tips of the usual twin stems, before emerging and unfurling into three large blooms. I am fascinated by how the anthers turn inside out to expose the pollen. The structure of the petals holds an iridescence which is particularly visible in the red flowers.

My original aim was to film a red amaryllis and a white amaryllis in order to make a red film and a white film, and I had a piece of music in mind: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s setting of Carl Sandberg’s poem Prayer of Steel, which is made up of two verses. I planned to edit the red flower footage to the first verse and the white to the second. Perhaps the sentiment of this proposed sound track remains, even though I decided to keep the film silent. It is interesting how images and sounds, a word or sentence, or perhaps a moment or scene from a film, can accompany the development and process of a work, yet remain on the periphery or as an internal touch-stone.

I understand that when you chose the common “red lion” variety for its bright red-coloured petals, you were already aware not only of your fascination for this kind of flower, its shape, etc., but of wanting to make a red film and a white film. In this regard, since you did not carry out any kind of previous study, how did you decide how to work with red? I ask from the sheerest technical ignorance, but I would very much like to know if red (particularly, a red like the one in your film) can pose any kind of difficulties in filming––for example, if there is a film stock more suitable than another to achieve what you were looking for.

Red doesn’t translate well digitally––the colour doesn’t feel as clean and vibrant as it does on film, or as stable. It can be equally challenging on film too, but this was the flower and colour that drew me to it. The challenge of capturing on film what we see is always there. I also filmed a hybrid red and white amaryllis but it became ordinary––an example of an idea that didn’t translate well or hold any interest or tension on film. Apart from using Ilford film stock on a few occasions, I have always shot on Kodak negative stock. I strive to do the best I can within the limits of the materials and situation I am filming in, and my knowledge. Technically, I am working within known parameters. All my films are image led, rather than coming from an in-depth investigation into technical aspects of film making. However, I love the material qualities of film and its photosensitive properties, which act as a sub-text and an integral aspect of the films and their meaning. The choice of using film as a medium is fundamental.

Although I just asked you about botany, there is something, however, in your way of framing the different parts, or the different elements of the flower that in a way has made me think of sculpture. I also think it may be related to something intrinsic to this type of plant and the very particular forms that are discovered. In certain cases, I think the camera is precisely the one who allows you to amplify the vision, who makes you see further afield, who enables new forms to emerge. In this study, I believe that not only can we see what the eyes would not be able to without the camera––or at least, if they saw it, they would not see it at all, they would not see it completely––but more than what they would not see, what they would never be able to discover that way (I think about what you get in a very concrete way when you take completely macro shots of the flower where certain elements seem to be floating therein, or are bathed in a colour -only the camera could reveal something like that!).

I like how framing determines what the viewer sees and how editing directs meaning and what is revealed through the order of the shots. Both processes allow details to be highlighted. I always intended to film the red flowers so that their petals created a red colour field. We don’t see the full flower or its edges. The colour fills the whole frame so that the internal forms of the flower float in a sea of red. Filming the white flower I was interested in how little information there might be on the negative––an image that was barely there, where brightness or lightness is registered as absence on the film surface. In both cases the image can become quite abstract and the sense of scale uncertain.

Amaryllis - a study (Jayne Parker, 2020). © Jayne Parker.

What kind of lenses did you use? How is Amaryllis - a study technically made and what are the main obstacles you found?

I shot the footage on a 16mm clockwork Bolex. I filmed using available light and a simple set up with the living plant on a table or chair near an upstairs window at home. I didn’t cut the flowers. I used either direct light from the window or back-lighting. I liked the way the petals changed depending on whether the light fell on them or they were illuminated from behind, appearing opaque or transparent.
I filmed very close-up by using extension tubes, which are collars that fit between the camera and the lens. They extend the capacity of the lens to get closer to the subject and have a magnifying effect. They also effect on the depth of field making it shorter so less of the image is in focus, and you require more light to film. I really liked the effect this had on the abstraction aspect of the film. I used the full Bolex extension tube set to film the stigma of the flower––it is a structure that is only three or four millimetres in size. Although extension tubes enable you to get close to the subject, the loss of depth of field makes me feel as if we are being pushed away. There is a balance to find between closeness and focus, as only a shallow plane of the flower is going to be sharp. I wanted to be inside the internal space of the flower, inside the bud, and to be at the extremity of what I could film on film through magnification, staying within what it is possible to see with my eyes through the optics of a lens, without it being a microscope. I feel I can never get close enough to the flower.

What kind of film stock did you use? It is quite amazing what you achieve working with the different depths of the colour red in the first part of the film. Even if your film can be considered a "study", did you carry out any kind of tests before shooting, apart from what we see in the film?

I used 100’ rolls of Kodak colour film negative, 250D/7207 so as to have some leeway with the depth of field. Filming such a small area meant that the grain and detail would still appear fine. I didn’t carry out any tests before hand and was happy to see what turned out.

I don't know if you agree with the idea that it is not only light that allows us to see the surface of things, which is something they have taught us since school, but rather, and in Amaryllis - a study this is very evident, that it is the surface of things that allows us to understandlight. In the case of your film, it is especially obvious in many of the cuts, especially if we pay attention to the texture of the plant itself.

The different lighting brought out different qualities of the flower and I was glad that the iridescence embedded in the structure of the petals is apparent on the film, particular that of the red flowers. Light allows us to see form too and it is the form of the flowers that I wanted to capture: the curvature of the petals, the trembling stamens at the end of the stalls (any movement was magnified because of filming in extreme close-up), the different textures of the flower parts that hold detail and pattern that we can’t see but can only imagine, the wonderment of the complexity of structure and form.

Another idea I had when seeing Amaryllis - a study is this realisation that colour depends on light. For example, sometimes there are cuts in your film where we see what appears to be the same surface with different intensities of colour. If we look closely, it largely depends on the amount of light that is entering or that is filtering through the petals. To what extent were you aware of this during filming?

I filmed across several days as the flowers opened. The intensity of the light varied day to day, which is what we see recorded on the film.

There is something very particular regarding light in Amaryllis that has to do with the position of the 16mm camera. In a general way, how did you decide at what position, from what angle to film each shot?

When I was filming, I tried always to keep to my plan to have a field of colour so the landscape of the interior of the flower would become abstracted. The short depth of field when filming very close helped with this. Sometimes the lens was so close that it blocked the light. The majority of the shots are looking directly into the interior of the flower and head on, as the flowers open at right angles to the stem.

I mention light here because strangely it is very soft at all times if the intensity of the colours is taken into account. Perhaps in the shots of the red flower the light may seem more intense, but with the white flower there are some moments when sunlight is seen directly on the petals and it is still very diffuse. How did you get it?

The softness is due to the lack of depth of field and also the quality of one of the lenses I used. I have a favourite lens, which is a Nikon 55mm lens with a macro facility, adapted for a Bolex. I bought it second-hand in the mid 1980s. It was an affordable way of having a lens for the Bolex that could film very close up. I love the way things look through this lens. It brings a sense of softness and depth whilst still being in focus. Its range isn’t so different from using a Bolex Switar 26mm lens with a macro facility, but this lens feels harder somehow. The Nikon lens brings a warmth and tactility to the image, and I like the quality of it. I like how things look through the lens when I’m filming.

At certain moments in Amaryllis - a study there are cuts from one shot to another in which the framing is quite similar, perhaps not identical, so that the elements are more or less in the same arrangement. However, the only thing that changes in the shot is the colour. That is to say: sometimes it seems that there is a more or less gradual, but perfectly visible variation in the exposure, but other times it seems that when the cut arrives, we are seeing something like a slight negative of the previous image. However, it could be a small and discreet “time lapse” (or maybe not exactly a time lapse, I’m not sure what’s happening there!). Suddenly it seems as if the flower has opened or closed.

I think the variations you are referring to are to do with whether the flower is front or back lit. All the shots were filmed at 24 frames per second. At the end of the red section there is a cross fade and the two variations bring a sense of an ending, the fading of the flower. The image seems to be cancelled out because of the superimposition.

There are certain studies of flowers, certain films, that make me think of a very close relationship between the processes of film (particularly, the emulsion) and photosynthesis. I don't know if you have ever thought about it. As I told you in the previous question, I think the sun is quite absent in Amaryllis - a study, or at least it is always in the background. There is something a bit magical about the fact that you never film the sun, that there is no direct sunbeam, as if the light was a little filtered, something like the kind of light that usually comes inside a greenhouse. However, photosynthesis is there as an imaginary counter-shot, establishing a relationship of total proximity, of needs and food, between cinema and plants and light. Are you interested in this question?

It is a very interesting observation. I didn’t think about photosynthesis whilst I was making the film but it interesting to think about it now in relation to the exposure of the film emulsion and the exchange that happens in plants. Both are dependent on light – without light there is no film and also no life. I have always preferred even, flat lighting to direct, high contrast lighting. It helps me to see the form of the subject better, and for the subtleties of the qualities to come from what I am filming rather than being obscured by the effect of lighting. In the back of my mind when I am filming there is always the anxiety of not being able to truly see what I am filming, that I will miss something and fail to make visible or capture what it is that I am seeking. Will the film carry or hold the quality that I feel when I look at the flower that is more than the surface of the flower itself? It is hard to articulate what I am looking for as it isn’t something that can be described. It is something that is felt and when I see it, I know it. Often the shots are the best I could do and fall short of my aspiration.

Taking up the previous question, because I actually think this is closely related, a fairly recurrent relationship has come to my mind when talking about the bond between botany and cinema––but in the case of your study Amaryllis - a study I think it is particularly interesting––which is the question of the "skin". I don't know what you think of this word, "skin", in relation to film and in relation to flowers. It could be a problematic word too, but for me it only evokes a synesthetic thought. But still, I think there is something quite strong behind it, beyond the idea itself I was telling you before, that depending on the thickness of this “flowerskin”, so to speak, we can find enormous variations, for example, regarding the "filtered" light or intensity in colours.

I think of the skin as surface, the surface materiality of the film and its material, the surface of the flower and its hidden interior before it opens. There is the promise of the bud, the thinness of the membrane of the flower petals and the force of growth, for instance in the vigorous stem of the amaryllis which shoots up straight to a height of up to half a meter, the observation of the life cycle of a flower from shoot to die back. In relation to synaesthesia, I experience a particular feeling of touch in the grain of film––framing holds this too. For the film to hold ‘felt experience’ is definitely a primary aim. There is a strong symbolic aspect to all my work. Things are what they are but I also want them to hold an essence of something that is much more––something beyond our ordinary consciousness, the mystery of the unseen. This is what I hope for.

I am drawn to film because of its material qualities. It is a record of what is in front of the camera and an activation of the photo-chemical process, a trace. I am trying to capture something. With a flower you wait for it to open––it opens and then it fades––filming the flowers is a way of trying to see the essence of life. Flowers carry a special quality, a sense of promise, that arc of life and death. All my work is highly symbolic––I am filming things for what they are and also what they hold.

Amaryllis - a study (Jayne Parker, 2020). © Jayne Parker.

I would like to know if you are interested in the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. I’m sure you know her “Red Canna” paintings, where she created many shapes of abstract art from close-ups of flowers. These close-ups of flowers were often understood to be depicting female genitalia, a vision (or an intention) that she always denied. I don't know if you are familiar with O'Keeffe, but in any case I find this question of sexuality interesting in relation to the sensuality in your film, which of course does not have to be human-related (we have already talked about the skin, but it is also true you have often worked on issues related to the body in other of your works, etc.) On the other hand, there is the issue of colour, precisely red in O'Keeffe and in the first part of your film.

I didn’t think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings when I made this film but I do know her work. I particularly like the paintings she made of red hills with a single large white flower or shell foregrounded. Incidentally, I also like the painting by Paul Nash “Flight of the Magnolia”, from 1944, depicting a large magnolia bloom in the sky. When I look at the forms of a flower’s reproductive system, I think of them in relation to the flower and not as standing in for a human body, which feels too easy and crass a comparison, although I am aware it is there. For me the flower is itself. It's form and presence allude to the mysterious nature of life and the metaphysical, that which is beyond our empirical understanding, and this is where my interest lies.

Why is the film not distributed in 16mm?

There is no reason that the film couldn’t be distributed on film. The negative could be cut and a print made. Maybe this is something to do in the future. I chose to use some of the red footage for a gallery exhibition at Tintype Gallery in London, called 'Essex Road V'. As the films were back projected digitally onto the gallery window and viewed from the street, it made sense to have the material scanned. Re-working and extending the film into its new version as Amaryllis - a study, it seemed natural to continuing working digitally. It is one of the few films I have edited digitally, usually I edit the film itself on a Steenbeck and pic-synch. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished editing a new film also made digitally. This was out of necessity as some of the footage had a fault that could only be corrected digitally. It has opened up this way of working but it also changes my relationship with the material of film and the way of thinking through action that editing the actual film material itself demands.

                                                          The interview was conducted by email, London-Seville,
September-October, 2020.

Thanks to Carlos Saldaña.