Color, form, and detail in Bruce Mathews’ photography


Photographer Bruce Mathews of Oak Bluffs views his latest subject, flowers, in a very different way than that of most other artists. While shooting various species in a dedicated studio space in his Oak Bluffs apartment, he discovers life and vibrancy in the blooms he collects at local florists.

These qualities truly shine in Mathews’ exhibit of 28 images, currently hanging at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse art space. Set against stark black or white backgrounds, his botanical subjects display their beauty and individuality in a surprisingly intimate and almost animated way.

“At first I thought of an imaginary land where flowers have this kind of life to them,” says Mathews, describing what inspired him to focus on his most recent subject. “They live their lives in privacy, and no one sees them.”

Hence the title of the exhibit, “Flowers When No One’s Looking.” Fortunately for viewers, Mathews has managed to reveal this secret life in an astonishingly compelling way, focusing not just on color, but on form and detail.

The sight of gardens overflowing with various flowers proved irresistible to Mathews’ sense of design. He admits to having plundered a few (only if there were plenty to spare), drawn by something that attracted his artist’s eye. As much as the colors, Mathews found himself struck by the beauty of his botanical captives, once he had separated them from the pack.

“I was struck as much by the colors as by the intricacy and patterning that can be found by looking closely at blooms and foliage,” he says. “I’m very keen on elements of design — on composition and light and shadow.”

Light and shadow, along with the “still life” quality of the studio-based arrangements, impart the look and feel of an old master painting to some of his photos. Although he never heightens the natural colors of his subjects, he sometimes plays with deepening shadows somewhat to bring the images to three-dimensional life.

Mathews has found that flowers, once plucked, are not the easiest subjects to work with. “I’m working against time,” he says. “They don’t sit there looking pretty. They droop and fade. I work on these things for hours. and in that time it’s right on the cusp of losing their freshness.”

Although Mathews is reluctant to reveal his trade secrets for the black background images, he does offer some insight on his webpage on how he creates the images set against a white background. An art critic for the Record recounts the details shared by Mathews in an interview: “He finds ingenious ways of manipulating flowers — suspending them in water, freezing them, tugging apart their blossoms or seed pods — even flattening them on a car windshield and shooting [from inside the car] against a luminous sky.”

For the white-background series, Mathews often deconstructs the flowers, and arranges them in artistic “poses” that in some cases mimic the fluid movements of dancers and other people in motion.

In some of the black background photos, the careful positioning of the blooms and/or torn pieces of petals suggest other forms — a bird of paradise flower appears to have taken off in flight; a deconstructed white lily could easily represent a flock of snow geese, the colorful stamens hinting at bright orange feet.

The artist himself sees human forms in his series of monochromatic milkweed pod images. He mentions tableaux that he imagines rising from the combination of filaments and seed casings — a clutch of people waiting at a bus stop, a gathering of demonstrators.

Before retiring to the Island, Mathews enjoyed a successful career as a New York City–based commercial photographer. After 25 years in the city, he moved to the Vineyard and started focusing on producing fine art images, clearly influenced by his love of design and composition.

The critic who wrote about Mathews’ flower images concludes his review with the following: “In a digital age, Mathews is a purist: What you see is what he saw in his viewfinder: an alternate botanical universe that was always there, waiting to be discovered.”

“Flowers When No One’s Looking,” a solo show of photographs by Bruce Mathews, will hang at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse lobby art space through April 19.