Every spring when the blossoms emerge, I feel the need to go out and take pictures. As a colour photographer, the blooms can make a very good accent in an image.
I like to go out regularly to check for locations but as the plants bloom and die quickly and at different times, it is difficult to coordinate shooting a model at a specific location at the right time. Some years I don’t manage it. I generally make several trips to my two favourite flower gardens to ascertain when they will be at their best. Spring is also the time when I take close-ups of flowers for another long running project entitled, Cunt Flowers. I make various patterned grids of alternating vaginas and flowers, from basic to Op Art. I’ll show the photos of my spring collection in the order I took them over the years.
Man with His Head Full of Flowers, shows a friend of mine rising from a park bench. I used off camera flash, which I do nearly all the time outdoors. Back in the age of film (before the advent of Photoshop, in which you can oversaturate your pictures at will), I had come to the conclusion, if you wanted to have a colourful picture you had to put colourful accessories in the image. Colour really pings in bright sunshine but not so much on an overcast day. With flash you carry the sunshine with you and can make a virtue of an overcast day. You can either balance the light falling on the subject, or make it the main source of light and under expose the background to give more drama as I did here. With flash you don’t have to angle your model towards the prevailing natural light or worry about the shadows caused by the midday sun. You are less tied to waiting for the light and it is a solution for bad weather.
I got the idea from a window display of a men’s clothes shop I had seen a couple of years before. The dummies had their heads and hands covered with flowers. It was only the following year after taking the photo, that I discovered Salvador Dali and saw his female figures with bunches of roses for heads, did I realised that I had received my inspiration second hand. I bought a brand-new medium format camera for £13. It was a Lubitel. It was very tinny and the edges of the frame only came into focus at f/11. It was pretty much a toy camera. I shot it on tungsten film with an 85B plus a warm-up gel on the flash.
Girl Lying on Grass Thinking of Absolutely Nothing, While the Grass Grows Beneath Her, was taken in Regents Park in London. I love swans. It was not the shot I chose for my portfolio at the time but it has grown on me over the years. What I like about it is her expression. Just as I was changing lenses, the swan began to move away as it lifted its wings. My flash took 10 seconds to recycle, so I only got one shot. Tip: If you want birds in your picture, bring food. Although these days it is said that bread is no good for them, on a pond it has to be bread because it floats. Seeds just go straight to the bottom and they can’t be bothered to sift through the silt. They are so spoiled these days. When I go to the seaside, I bring fish.
Flower Head and Giraffe. Not having used my flower mask in quite some time, I remembered it and dusted it off. I just so happened to have a blow-up giraffe. Giraffes are very Dali.
The Enigma of Springtime Kitsch. There is a well-known Robert Doisneau photograph of a couple entwining around each other. Seen here
I went to a Doisneau exhibition very early on and saw the camera he used. It was a vintage 5×4 Speed Graphic. It had been modified by putting gears on the outside. The camera had a shutter in the lens as well as a shutter blind. It was a slit that moved down the length of the film plane. By slowing it down with the gearing, he had time to rotate the models on a turntable. The technique is known as slit scanning. I then thought of this picture sometime later. I got hold of one of these cameras and hoped one day to find someone to modify it for me. Anyway, the camera got stolen along with my Lubitel and all the rest of my cameras. A few years later, I put out a calendar and was contacted by a retouching company who wanted to collaborate with me on a picture of my choosing. I remembered this one. I shot the girl front and back, spinning in a plain white dress. On another day, I shot some white fabric with the rose pattern. A version of the dress was created in a 3D programme and the pattern was put on it. It was then rotated to produce the effect. Some years ago, someone produced a smart phone app that would do this slit scan effect but It is no longer available.
The First Days of Spring. I go to the walled garden of my local park so often that I sometimes feel it is too familiar for me to find fresh angles. However, I finally got to make use of this walk-through hedge. I had seen a photo of a young girl skipping and thought it might look good to do something like that but in a garden and with a flower headed woman.
Leaf Lips. I saw a photo of a plant drawn by Man Ray on the face of a woman for a ball. See here
It was drawn up the centre of the face with leaves for eyes and mouth. It gave me the idea for two pictures. This was one of them. I plucked a few leaves from a neighbour’s hedge and tried them on in front of the mirror. I had bought a couple of flower-patterned dresses from a charity shop, waiting for the moment to use them. This plantation was full of Rhododendron and Azalea bushes and I had surveyed it several times to catch it in peak bloom. Before it got National Lottery money to renovate and ruin it, it was overgrown in areas. The first three or four times I went there, I would get lost. It was so dense, I thought you could easily get murdered in there. There was a large fenced off area with a sign that said “Dangerous Trees Keep Out”. I imagined ancient trees deliberately shedding their branches, trying to kill you. We shot this not far from those malevolent trees. This part had people walking only occasionally through it. The path leading into the darkness, signifies the unease I felt about the area.
Dangerous Tree. Even in a lovely place, you can come to a surreally beautiful end.
Tessa Among the Blooms. I have rarely shot nudes outdoors and this is one of them. This was the first time I took the model Tessa Kuragi to this garden. It was late evening and there was no one about. She had first contacted me, wanting to be part of my violence series. After the shoot we went back to my place and I interviewed her on video in the bathroom. In it she said she thought I might have “serial killer potential”. That did not stop her shooting with me though, as I was to do several more times over the years.
Flower Outline. Tessa must have forgotten I might serially murder her because she phoned me one morning a year or two later and asked if I was busy in the afternoon. Since I had not killed her in the several times I had photographed her since our last trip to the garden, she probably thought she could risk her life yet again for a good picture. I was not busy and she suggested doing a shoot. We did not know where to go and I remembered the garden. I had no firm Idea what I was going to do there but then I remembered the idea for this shot. I had tried it once before with a man in a suit but it failed and one of the reasons was because the flowers were a different colour than that of the bush he was lying in front of. She had brought along the pink outfit and that is possibly the reason I chose that colour bush. Her position had to be right the first time, as it was getting late and it was a lengthy process laying down the flowers. I did the best I could with snap judgement. In the crime scene photos I had seen, people often lost shoes, so I positioned the shoe away from the body.
Woman with Her Head Full of Flowers. This was shot in the autumn but I am putting it in this series anyway because it fits in quite nicely. Still alive despite shooting with me so often, Tessa phoned me one morning. I was not doing anything, so we went to the walled garden of my local park in the afternoon. By then I was using digital and I had meant to shoot on the tungsten setting and filter the flash but I forgot. What I did in the end was export a daylight and a tungsten version out of lightroom and used a mask in Photoshop to paint in the daylight where the flash hit.
Tessa, Field of Colour. Five years later and still neglectful of her personal safety, Tessa asked me to photograph kimonos she owned and we went back to the garden. Spring 2015 was one of the best years for blossoms in Britain in living memory. The garden had been renovated with National Lottery money and it must have been advertised because there were unceasing lines to and from the packed car park to the garden. Like the fan of an indie pop group whose band had gone mainstream, I felt aggrieved. Where previously there were only a few visitors, it was now like a tourist attraction. The dense growth had been cleared out and branches and the “Dangerous Trees” cut down to open it up more. I did not like it as much. Even if I had a mind to despatch Tessa and hide her body in the undergrowth, there were just too many people about. As is my way of working, I had been to the garden shortly before to pick out my locations. While Tessa sat in her suitcase with her feet on the grass applying make-up, I set up for this shot. Another thing I sometimes do, is use mirrors in sunshine for spotlighting effects. This was taken at midday and I used a round mirror to kill the shadows on her face from the overhead sun. They can be useful when doing a very wide shot and you cannot get a flash or conventional reflector close enough to the subject.
Woman in a Flowering Tree
The Parcel. As soon as I saw the path and the flowering tree during the reccy (reconnaissance), I knew I wanted her walking along it. I also wanted to invoke some narrative, and to that end, I thought I would have her carrying a parcel. Why? How do I know? Maybe she is taking a shortcut to or from a rural Japanese post office or to a friend across the valley? She has obviously been startled by something. Perhaps it is a falling branch, an ox or an assailant. Don’t ask me. I am the author of inconclusive narratives. I begin telling stories without knowing the end.
Alva Bernadine makes photographs and films. By using themes such as surrealism, sexuality and violence, Bernadine touches various overlapping topics and strategies. Several reoccurring subject matters can be recognised, such as mirrors, shadows, optical effects and representations of the female form. The work is filled with invented surreal scenarios, witty events, troubling scenes from movies that were never made and almost hallucinatory images that invoke narrative, prompting you to imagine what came before or what is about to happen. They are not only about desire but the problems that go with it. Bernadine was born in Grenada, West Indies and grew up on the outskirts of London. He won the Vogue/Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award as a young photographer and has since worked for many prestigious magazines and became Erotic Photographer of the Year for his first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women.