I have been enamored of petals and blossoms and flowering things far longer than my love of ghost stories and scary things. It goes further back even than my obsession with magic and fairy tales, or pretty dresses, perfumes, and glittering gems and jewelry. Before I could turn the pages of the books that I love, before I could slice or stir or simmer or in the kitchen, before I even learned how to lose myself in daydreams…there were flowers.
(These are all of the things that make up my heart, both the shadowed corners and the illuminated spaces. But flowers were there first.)
When I first saw the lustrous blooms and kindred glooms of Alyssa of Forest Noir’s midnight floriography, my heart skipped a strange beat and breathed a soft, fluttery sigh, recognizing pieces of itself in this photographer’s exquisite arrangements. Evocative of tenebrous twilights and somber echoes of the past, as well brimming with lavish, luxuriant regeneration and reawakenings, it encompasses all of the beautiful, terrible contradictions and certainties and even the liminal gateways between life and death. Lensed through Alyssa’s dreamy, thoughtful eye, flowers are all of these things. As my own heart always instinctively knew.
I am so thrilled that Alyssa agreed to an interview and you will find our chat below, wherein we discuss the secrets and storytelling of the still life photograph, art as a powerful, jeweled sword of rebellion, and working with what you’ve got, where you are, to create things of indescribable beauty and connection.
To keep this 31 Days of Horror-related, I pressed Alyssa for a few favorite horror movies. Her response? Though she confesses she does not especially care for Rob Zombie (ha! sometimes I don’t, either!) she shares that she is a huge Wes Craven fan, with her favorite of his films being Scream. A “real sucker for good cinematography and a haunting score,” she loves The Vvitch and It Follows. But she also loves Sam Raimi’s silliness!
What is it about the still-life as a realm of artistic expression that appeals to you?
I recently spent a lot of time writing an artist statement for my current body of work, and thinking about my “why” – I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in the statement, so I will put it below:
“Still life – Meanings hidden, shown, and yet to be discovered. I want to show that an entire world can lie in a bowl of fruit, or even a vase of flowers. I hold still life sacred. It serves as a means to truly shape an image, rather than simply take a picture of what already exists. I do not just document, I conduct. I orchestrate small universes, existing among the petals and juice of spilled fruits. I find the cosmos in a single flower. I heal my wounds with dirt-caked hands, using tiny symbols as small as an apple seed. Melding parts into a whole, I create an ephemeral waypoint before the items depart to my dinner table, shelves, or back to the earth. Classical vanitas, memento mori, floral still lives – all within the dark world of my table.
With simple tools and familiar objects, I spin tales of how death has touched my life, share stories of where I come from, echo songs taught to me by the forests and hills of the land. I create from myths, folktales, and literature. I create beauty for beauty’s sake – to escape out of reality into a lush and vibrant place, bursting with life, possibility, and love. Birthing art into a cold and hard world, with no other motivation than to show beauty and connection to lost souls, is an act of rebellion. Women have been historically scorned for lack of substance when creating conventionally beautiful work. I reject this notion and weaponize it. Beauty is power. It can cut through monotony like a jeweled sword – and I intend to wield it as long as I can.”
Some of your arrangements and creations recall classical vanitas paintings, works of memento mori–can you speak to these influences in your practice?
Yes! These are all incredibly important influences in my work. A little background – I have been photographing since I was 15, so about 18 years now. I began making still life work in college, where I was a photography major and art history minor. I went to The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I was incredibly lucky as a student to be at these schools, especially as I was a poor kid on grants and loans. Both were on the fenway in Boston, and being a student, I was allowed free entry into all the museums. My first school was actually next door to the Boston MFA itself, and I was a short walk away from the magical, irreplaceable Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I spent lunch breaks and days off wandering the halls of museums, staring at statues, Vermeers, and Van Eycks.
I soon specialized my art history classes and research on the Dutch masters and other great still-life artists. The sheer amount of history and the volume of work to look at drew me in and held me there. Still lives seemed magical to me, and still do. The symbolism, the luxurious colors, the dreamy, liminal qualities they all seem to share. Every still life has secrets and layers to uncover. I especially felt drawn to memento mori and vanitas. Both serve as reminders or allegories of death. My life has been colored by death and grief in so many ways from a very young age, so it’s important to me to represent this in my work. I hope history echoes a little in my pieces. I only started showing my still life about 2 years ago. For the longest time, I thought no one would like them, or even care about such traditional work, when the landscape of current popular photography is so portrait-focused. But I was wrong! I didn’t gain any type of audience online until I started posting my still life and writing.
What other influences and inspiration do you draw from in your daily art practice?
Film. Cinematography and lighting, color grading. I took a lot of elective film studies in college and I will never be able to get enough. I think my work is as reflective of this as it is of traditional painting. I learned how to use color from film. I have seen In the Mood for Love about 80 times just to study the lighting. I also really draw on seasons and the local landscape. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so the ability to forage for my work is not something I take for granted. Of course, I am heavily influenced by painting, so I look at some form of painting daily. My favorite book I have is a hefty tome, with every painting in The Vatican. It’s a lovely thing to flip through while I have my morning coffee. It might surprise you to know I avoid looking at photography altogether, and almost all the photographers I follow online are friends. I think there is enough to inform my work out there that is not related to photography at all.
When I look at your art, brimming with petals and blooms in varying stages of blossom and decay, I think of the symbolism and language of flowers, of how, for example, in the Victorian era, flowers were primarily used to deliver messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. I also find myself contemplating the various magical properties of the various buds and leaves within your compositions and wonder if you’re not gathering the ingredients to do a bit of spellwork. I am curious as to whether there are elements of either floriography or flowerwitchery in your creations or is my imagination running away with me?
I love floriography and in most cases, my choice of flower is deliberate. I have a small collection of books on Victorian Floriography and I refer to them often. Choices are always made, whether for a traditional meaning, a color-coded to a feeling, or a secret meaning I have devised. Almost all of my work is posted alongside a lengthy artist statement where I detail my choices for the viewer to demystify the work a tiny bit, and I often talk about the flowers, or other symbols, and their meanings to me. I think this is an essential part of the work for me, imbuing these objects and blooms with new meaning.
As for spellwork, I am not the least bit involved in actual witchcraft! I am terribly sensible and not very magical at all. I am deeply fascinated by various occult practices, but unfortunately, I am just a plain old atheist and the magical properties of any of the pieces I use is quite lost on me. For me, the magic is in the storytelling I do with these materials.
Ok after that monstrously long question, a far simpler one (maybe?) What is your favorite flower, and why?
Roses! Which sounds so mundane, but I grew up outside Portland, Oregon – the City of Roses. The famous rose gardens there are one of my favorite places to be. They remind me of home, of the gardens, of my grandmother’s face powder – it was called Ombre Rose, and I used to sneak into her bathroom to smell it as a child. There are seemingly infinite variations of rose, which fascinates me to no end. The smell, the thorns, the velvet petals. Easily my favorite to look at and to work with. My daughter’s middle name is Rose for this very reason. Beauty, nostalgia, and a cure for my homesickness.
Do you keep a flower garden as part of your artistry? Do you grow any of the gorgeous posies that find their way in front of your lens?
I have not a single plant in my home, nor a garden, just a revolving collection of cut florals. I live in a tiny 895 sq ft apartment with my partner, child, and rabbit, so there is a bit of a space issue. In the future, when we find our forever house, I would absolutely love to (and plan to) have a garden to work out of. My love affair with flowers began way before my beginning with still life. I grew up gardening with my grandmother and kept my own flowers as a small child. I spent a lot of time outside and in the forest, so I have held onto a deep attachment to trees, flowers, and plants of all kinds. Much of my very early, awkward teenage photography consisted of black and whites of the neighborhood gardens, printed in the void of my high school darkroom. For now, I source flowers from local farms and markets, as well as responsible foraging in our area.
What is your space like where you compose and shoot these lovely arrangements? And with regard to space in general, I’m wondering if we peeked in your home, would we find a house-sized version of one of your photos, or is your interior decor style totally different from your work? I’m sorry if that’s an obnoxious question, I’m really nosy!
This answer is for some reason, very astounding to most people. I guess most expect me to have some kind of gigantic studio or fancy lighting setup. As I mentioned above, my apartment is miniscule, so I actually shoot all my still life on a very small end table with a backdrop, next to my living room sliding glass door. I do not use studio lighting by choice, but there is plenty of sun there and I can shape the light however I want using many pieces of $2 black poster board from Staples. It is very utilitarian and not romantic at all as far as space goes. It’s next to my couch and my rabbit is always lurking under the table, hoping I will drop a rose petal for him to eat.
I am actually really proud of this weird little space in my apartment, and that I can churn out my best work from my living room end table with nothing but my subject, a camera, and some poster board. I post a lot of reels of my process with this decidedly boring area on full display, because I really want the young photographers or people just starting to know that you can create ANYWHERE, and with anything. You do not need expensive equipment or an aesthetically pleasing studio to make high-quality work. Art is for everyone, not just people with money. It’s really a mission of mine to spread that message because of the recent influx of aesthetic obsession on social media. It’s easy to think everyone has it better or easier than you, you know?
As for my decor, it’s not too nosy! I love decor. I am very proud of my work, but I am just not compelled to hang my own art. 98% of the work in my house is in my bedroom/office space, and it is almost all prints of classical work. I have a lot of still life paintings, transportive landscapes from the Hudson River School, any painting of rabbits I can find, and my all-time favorite portrait – Sargent’s Madame X. All my modern art, and pieces from friends and other independent contemporaries, is in the kitchen.
Do you have any rituals or practices that accompany the act of creation? And conversely, I suppose, what inspires you when you find yourself blocked or in a rut?
I do a lot of planning, so pieces may be conceived months before they appear on my page. With all pieces, I spend a really long time getting to know the flowers or food before I use them. I need to know how something will bend, flow, move. Will it snap or break? Does it need supports? Can I pin it? This is ritualistic in nature I suppose, as I go into deep, almost meditative thinking when I spend time with my subjects. It can become trancelike, and my partner has to shout at me if he needs something! haha.
When I am in a rut, that only signals to me I need a break. I simply take time off making work if I can allow it with commitments and such. I work two jobs and have a small child running around, so it’s easy to get burnt out. Taking a small break from creation allows my brain and heart a rest. It offers a slow-down, and lets the stream of ideas begin to flow again.
This final photo, as you can tell from the change in quality and arrangement, and well, everything, was one that I took last night. Of a cocktail that I created in celebration of this interview and inspired by Alyssa’s work, “Flowers from the Underworld.” We both agree that despite some contemporary reframing by poets and writers, the myth of Persephone’s captivity in the underworld is very much not a love story. It’s gross and it’s terribly, profoundly sad. In “Flowers from the Underworld” Alyssa does not discount or dismiss the tragedy, but instead, imbues it with a sense of hope, and of healing. Capturing and conveying the sentiment of how even in the midst of hell, roses may grow. I love that.
And I will admit, “Flowers from the Underworld” is a better name for this cocktail than my original name, which was “Poisoning that fucker, Hades!” I don’t have measurements, just use your pre-booze eyeballs and good sense.
Ingredients and loose recipe
-gin (1 oz? 2?)
-unsweetened pomegranate juice, fresh or bottled (2 tbsp?)
-half a lime, juiced (but lemon is okay in a pinch)
-a bit of orgeat (2 tsp? a drizzle?)
-spicy ginger beer
Shake pomegranate juice, citrus, gin, and orgeat with ice in a shaker until well chilled. Strain into coupe glass (or whatever you want). Top with the spicy fizzes of your favorite ginger beer. Heal your wounds, love yourself, and grow some roses.