Wall ferns: some reflections on a photographic preoccupation

One of my favorite things about Scotland, is the way quite a diversity of plants can be found growing on old buildings. Many of the photographs I have taken since moving here, are of plants-on-buildings. I have a particular fondness for those species of fern which grow in abundance on north-facing walls and, of course, on ruins.

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Harts tongue ferns growing on ruins of an old mill on the river Kelvin

Some of these ferns are familiar to me, for they are highly valued in gardens of the Pacific Northwest. Seeing them growing in such abundance here, without any help from gardeners, is something I am repeatedly amazed by. To me, and especially after four years in Los Angeles (a desert in denial), they signify a certain cultural and environmental liveness–one born in part from a lack of concern over, or perhaps an explicit appreciation of, processes of aging and decay. That’s what I read in to them, anyway, as a North American tired of newness. Ferns are the most ancient plants after all–they were the first to appear on land, some 350,000,000 years ago.

I have been trying to sort out what I see in them, especially in the process of photographing them (which I find myself doing over and over again). But this has be an excavation, less of the photographs themselves–which (as always) lack an adequate degree of technical and artistic skill to truly put the medium to the test–and more of a process of looking, or of making visible, that occurs between the fern and the camera, which individually are engaged in two very different processes of reproduction.

The ferns appear on walls in the first place as a result of sexual reproduction–that is, they grow where they do because a spore has successfully produced an organism called a prothallus which, finding itself in a suitably wet environment, has enabled the fertilization of female cells by male cells, and the subsequent genesis and nourishment of a new fern (more on this amazing process below). Unlike humans and other animals that move about, or plants which have been planted in a given location via intentional or cooperative processes (such as transplantation, or digestion), the appearance of a fern on a wall is a direct outcome of a reproductive cycle that has found a home. It both realizes and signifies reproduction (that’s why ferns can often be used to confirm which is the north side of a tree or wall).

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Taken from Fern Finder by A. Hallowell and B. Hallowell (1981).

The camera’s is a secondary reproduction, one which enhances the visibility of the first. That’s because part of what photographs do is bring otherwise overlooked elements out of the background and, in so doing, aestheticize them; as Susan Sontag put it, photographs beautify wall ferns by bringing them to our attention. The other thing that photographs do, as camera companies like to say, is ‘capture’ a moment in time. In this, they draw attention to the event of the fern’s appearance: the fern would not be photograph-worthy were it not for its surprising location, the surprisingly perfect attunement of fern to wall. Its capture in a photograph registers–if somewhat belatedly–a miraculous reproduction.

The trouble of course, as Sontag also pointed out, is that if photographs create beauty they also use it up: photographs of things like wall ferns (or dandelions growing out of cracks in the sidewalk) quickly appear clichéd, and it becomes hard to encounter anything new in them; they do not seem eventful at all. Which is why I guess, I am never quite satisfied with these photographs.

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Rustyback fern growing on a wall at the Govan Graving Docks

In fact, what my photographs of ferns often seem to do, is celebrate something like the fern’s ‘ingenuity’, or ‘self-sufficiency’, or ‘resilliance’. The event of its appearance is subsumed in the body of the fern itself which is, almost unavoidably, the centre of the camera’s focus. The wall–which has made the fern’s reproduction, and thus its existence, possible–is merely background. But such effects are not simply evidence of the objectifying tendencies of photography (so eloquently described by Sontag); they also reflect an interaction of constraints between fern and camera that are in themselves interesting to consider.

For example, part of the reason that the only photographs I have taken of wall ferns which really worked (i.e., are in focus), are face-on, with the fern more or less in the centre, is that a side-angle (which might help to foreground the wall more) required a longer depth of field, for which the my handheld camera (not to mention my cameraphone) could not gather enough light. This is in part because, as hinted at above, wall ferns tend to grow on north-facing or shady walls. Thus, between the fern’s preference for low light conditions, and my camera’s need for brighter, more even lighting, certain photographs are just less likely. Of course these problems could be mitigated through various technological means, or by the use of a tripod, but that would not change the constraints that the fern presents, and would merely change the kind (not the fact) of constraint introduced by the camera (for example, a tripod would make it even harder to get the camera flush with the wall). In any case, the point here is not to solve a lighting problem, but to see how the fern and the camera together tend to produce some forms of looking more easily than others.

The thing about wall ferns, which you might not realize just looking at them, is that, in contrast to the impression which they seem to give in some photographs–that is, of being self-sufficient or highly resilient–is that their dependence on the specific environment in which they appear is extreme: on the surface of the prothallus, the ‘sperm’ can only reach the ‘eggs’ by swimming. If the spores do not land in a film of water, or if that water does not last long enough to sustain the whole process, then no new ferns will grow. In other words, the reproduction of wall ferns is not miraculous but environmental–it requires the wall, its shaded crevices, and the rain as much as it requires the specific qualities of the fern. At the same time, the roots eventually fill the space of the crevice so completely that, if dislodged, the damage makes the fern’s survival elsewhere unlikely.  These ferns may not require gardeners, or even the help of pollinating insects, to enable their reproduction and growth, but they are directly sustained by the environment in which they are found.

Interestingly, the act of photographing wall ferns does bring their environment to the foreground: not only in the lighting difficulties encountered, but also in the physical contact with the wall as one tries to get close enough, or to achieve a different angle. Then you have a (nagging, perhaps not fully formulated) sense of the way in which the wall matters. It seems that it is the resulting photograph–with its foregrounded fern–that makes the wall fade into background, but I think it is also the expectations and visual habits associated with looking at photographs, and at plants (which are clearly by this stage thoroughly entangled).

What would it take for a photograph of a fern to surprise or move us (that is, us lovers of ferns)? On the one hand, this is an artistic question best pursued by serious photographers. On the other, there seems some insight to be gained from considering the fact that, these days, a photograph has to do something quite dramatic or unexpected in order for it to appear to us as an event. In fact, it is the relative uneventfulness of photographs that enables them to do so much else (e.g., signify, persuade, mythologize, and so on). Which means that, in thinking about how they work in one setting, it is impossible to fully bracket how they work in others.

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