Collection Themes

An Introduction to the Botanical Photography of Alan S. Heilman

Frederick C. Moffatt, Professor Emeritus, UT School of Art

This collection consists of more than 1,100 digitized color-film photographs of flowering plants, ferns, mosses, and lichens taken over the past sixty years by Alan S. Heilman, retired professor of Botany at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Recently gifted by Dr. Heilman to the University of Tennessee Libraries, the digital images represent a lifetime of fascination with the color, form, and development of plants.

The Browse Items link presents an alphabetical arrangement of thumbnail images containing botanical and/or common names, a unique image number, and one or more categories (tags). Names containing sp provide only the genus without a specific species. Selection of a thumbnail image results in a magnified view with descriptive information (metadata) provided by Dr. Heilman. Among metadata elements are plant names, variations, date and location of the photograph (if known), image size compared with the subjects actual size, original format data, category, and a copyright statement.

The Introduction includes thirteen images representing collection themes: Bark, Buds, Cones, Flowers, Fruits, Fungi, Leaves, Lichens, Mosses, Seeds, Stems, Trees, and Wood. Focusing on structural categories, the themes provide sub-collections of images with common tags. The Search box and the Advanced Search enable exploration of the collection by item number and the descriptive metadata.

The photographs generally feature close views taken out-of-doors in natural light, but the oeuvre has a varied pedigree. Some examples originated from Heilman's far-ranging tours of the United States; however, he quite naturally favors the dense growth of the eastern U.S. localities over parched western climes. A core of pre-retirement work (those photographs made previous to 1997) captures wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the bulk of the collection is of post-retirement vintage and features the cultivated plants he has sought out at the University of Tennessee Gardens on the Agriculture campus. Some images, taken indoors under varying degrees of magnification, resemble abstract oil paintings.

While in the field, Heilman normally packs two film cameras: one for slides, the other for prints. The slide has been the mainstay of his archive, but he considers the matted glossy print that he personally has developed in his darkroom to be the ne plus ultra of his repertoire.

Alan Heilman is a gentle, quiet, and unassuming man. Without knowing him or his exact purpose, many a visitor to the University of Tennessee Gardens has observed him honing in on a likely target. Shrouded beneath a floppy hat and screened behind an umbrella, he reverently kneels, squats, or perches on a low stool, while maneuvering a Benbow tripod with its attached 35 millimeter Leica film camera into position near a blossom or leaf. He occasionally arranges a snippet of black cloth behind a motif to mask out the distracting chaos of surrounding vegetation. As if threading a needle, he ceases all movement, concentrates on the viewfinder, and rechecks the shutter speed setting. Over the years, he has found slow speed films (at first Kodachrome and later Fujichrome) to be most suitable for transcribing fine details. All seems ready. His finger touches the shutter cable release button. But occasionally something looks wrong. Heilman will abort the shot, pack up his equipment, and leave the gardens for home.

In an earlier day, a similar preparatory ritual was unexceptional practice for the scientifically oriented nature photographer, excluding of course those gamblers who wanted to freeze a bird or insect in motion. There are still some perfectionists in the nature field, for example, Heather Angel, who has made the flora and fauna of Kew Gardens her specialty. (Angel often "tweets" scorn on showboat digital manipulators who claim to be "improving on nature.") Yet it cannot be denied that in this advancing age of cheap, rapid-fire, digital photography, Heilman's "long pause" is an increasingly singular event, particularly when it leads to the non-picture, the absent view. As he recently commented, "It may take you fifteen minutes to set everything up and of course I'm slower than I was ten years ago, and I'll sit there and wait until [the wind] stops and then I'll look in there and see what it looks like and I won't take the picture. You see, the trouble with the digital people is that they can keep taking [pictures] any number of times, using up only batteries. Film is expensive." (And it grows more expensive as the total extinction of film technology draws ever closer). Not just the wind, but an unexpected shift in shadow and light, the intrusion of an insect or bird, or any number of unforeseen circumstances and last-minute personal concerns, will have caused Heilman's scrub. When he does follow through, there is no guarantee the result will have earned a permanent place in The Botanical Photography of Alan S. Heilman collection. Before offering his archive to the University of Tennessee Libraries, he discarded some 1,500 slides that no longer met his approval.

To be truly successful, the photograph must have passed three not entirely compatible inspections. It must be particularly informative about the physical structure of the target plant. Its overall pictorial presentation must be visually stimulating; that is, its unique arrangement of hues and tints, value gradient, display of surface tactility, and its compositional format must work together to produce a pleasing, even invigorating, effect on the viewer's mind and sensibilities. And finally, the image must continue to satisfy Heilman over time. Of composition, he recently said, "I want to fill the frame in a certain way and that's important.... I have that in mind when I am hunting for things.... If there's a background and I can't control itthat is a major concernit all has to work." Even though Heilman's tastes have subtly changed over the past several decadeshe admits to having become more impressionistic than he was in his teaching dayshe summarizes his aesthetic outlook in a few off-handed comments. The photograph "must look right;" it must "be kind of interesting;" or be "kind of neat." Above all else, it must be something he himself likes to look at.

Heilman's aesthetic pleasure principle is not an escapist's manifesto of "art for art's sake," for it embodies the green foundations of social reform that oddly resemble the Pop Art philosophy once preached by another of Pittsburgh's former residents, Andy Warhol. Warhol liked the look of common commercial packaging at a time when the Western consumer despised or otherwise ignored it. Similarly Heilman, in a popular public slide lecture entitled "Looking and Seeing," asks his listeners to follow the example of the artist by slowing down and really looking at "the daisies." At the same time, he advises them to learn something about the habitat in which they live. His advice is the credo of a conservationist. Heilman, who formerly included an environmental course in his teaching schedule, believes that "close looking can induce a viewer to love his or her natural habitat and encourage a desire to preserve it."

Along with a brother, Richard, who became a civil engineer, Heilman, who was born in 1927, grew up in Dormont, an autonomous borough just outside the Pittsburgh city limits. His father, Harold Heilman, was an architect, a graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology. The family could ill afford an automobile, an inconvenience that was the least of young Alan Heilman's concerns. During his graduate years, he routinely relied upon public transport and pedestrian power, rather than on a car, to get about. If he had wanted to be a field-oriented, rather than a laboratory-oriented, botanist, this might have caused some problems, but his early interest in microscopy made his eventual career choice a relatively easy one.

Award-winning Sunflower
Helianthus anuus, no. 0394

Dormont's grade and high schools were within walking distance of Alan's home. On weekends the Heilmans often took a streetcar on cultural outings to Pittsburgh's richly-endowed civic center, where Schenley Park, Carnegie Institute of Technology, the Phipps Conservatory, the University of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History awaited them. (A Heilman photograph of a sunflower won first prize in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's 1996 Natural World Photographic Competition.) [image 0394] As stimulating as his free youthful exposure to the arts and sciences must have been, Heilman credits a second-grade teacher with influencing his eventual career choice. He recalls that at the end of the school year, "The teacher gave each of us a paper pot, about this big, with soil in it and a few sunflower seedsactually, after I became a botanist I realized these were fruits, not flowersand I took them home and planted them alongside the house. And, man, they got as high as that ceiling up there. Then I got a whole jar of seeds. I had more sunflowers the second year."

Several years later, another random sequence of events brought Heilman to the threshold of his second career as a science photographer. In 1941, as Alan entered high school, his father constructed a darkroom in the family basement where the Heilman brothers quickly learned the ropes. Soon after, as a Christmas gift, Alan received his own camera, a used German-made Kodak Recomar 33, equipped with a double extension bellows, which could accommodate a 9 x 12 cm cut film, or after adaptation, color roll film. The Recomar, as Kodak boasted in the late 1930s, was the ideal instrument for the "serious amateur photographer" and it, along with a 35 millimeter single reflex Pentacon Praktica and a Kodak Retina FX2, which Heilman acquired during his later graduate school years, became a staple of this photographer's arsenal. What the arsenal lacked, however, was the 35 millimeter analogue Leica camera. Of all cameras in use during the 1960s, one admirer commented that the Leica placed "as little between the photographer's eye and the subject being photographed as possible" and thus made the camera seem to disappear. In the early 1960s, a graduate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, the late William H. Emig, bequeathed to Heilman the first of nine Leicas he has owned since then.

At the same time Heilman took command of his first camera, he learned how to take microscopic enlargements. While browsing Natural History magazine in the school library, he discovered that Pittsburgh was home to a chapter of the American Society of Amateur Microscopists. Its secretary, Herman Fowler, a Bell Telephone employee, also happened to be an amateur photographer and resided in Dormont. He and Alan became lasting friends. Fowler had fashioned a box, on one end of which was positioned a film holder and, on the other, a shutter. In turn, the device was fitted to the eyepiece of a microscope. Utilizing a darkroom in Fowler's attic, the two collaborated to produce photo micrographs of dissected plants they had brought in from the field. The determination and enterprise of Fowler and this society of mostly adult amateurs clearly impressed young Heilman.

The Pittsburgh chapter of the American Society of Amateur Microscopists also had a vague academic connection. University of Pittsburgh biologist William Emig, an expert in microscopy techniques of the slicing and staining of botanical specimens, agreed to instruct Heilman and his fellow chapter members informally and to allow them to meet monthly in his campus laboratory. Alan's father again made a timely contribution to his son's ongoing education by giving him a full-sized medical microscope as a Christmas present.

With Emig as his major professor, Heilman earned his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from the University of Pittsburgh in 1949 and 1952 respectively. In the fall of 1952, he entered the Ph.D. program in Botany at The Ohio State University in Columbus. Here he worked under professor Glenn Blaydes, a morphologist with wide interest in plant structure, including unusual growth forms. Taking advantage of Heilman's photographic expertise, which had been further bolstered at Pitt by an Emig course in micro-techniques, Blaydes gave him a research assistantship that paid full tuition and an additional $100-a-month stipend and set him to work photographing plants and producing microscopic slides destined for class use. Four years later, Heilman received an assistantship to teach a section of Ohio State's burgeoning general botany course, a closely regimented and labor-intensive assignment that required teaching labs and leading discussions. He eventually agreed to teach an evening off-campus section of the course.

Having been awarded a Ph.D. in 1960, Heilman's next and last rung on the academic ladder was to be the University of Tennessee's Botany Department, where he was hired as a lecturer. In certain respects, this department was a satellite of Ohio State's program since its senior faculty members, Jack Sharp, Royal Shanks, and Fred Norris, were Ohio State alumni and since Tennessee's general botany course followed a similar format. When Heilman arrived, the now-defunct department was in its prime and forcefully competed with the other life sciences for its share of the available arts and sciences elective enrollment. It did not hurt Heilman's chances that general botany, which had expanded to twenty sections, or about 500 students, by the time of his arrival, was modeled on Ohio State's general course. When Norris, its directing professor, took ill, Heilman was selected to take his place temporarily: "Well, I didn't change a thing -- they knew I had the experience. They even used the same textbook [as Ohio State]." Heilman stayed on at Tennessee, became tenured, and directed and taught in general botany for thirty-six years. When the fad for the long-distance transmission of televised class lectures hit campus in the early 1970s, general botany then had an enrollment of 900 students, and Heilman managed and "starred" in the program. He later devised an audio-tutorial course that referenced his photographic models.

Tulip, no. 1007
Tulipa, no. 1007

As of July 2011 The Botanical Photography of Alan S. Heilman contains a total of 1,120 digitized images, with flowers far outnumbering other subjects. If the number of photographs which have been devoted to a single species indicates anything of the photographer's preferences, the Acer japonicum (Japanese maple) [image numbers 0026-0073], which appears in nearly 50 views, ranks as his favorite. The Echinacea [0277-0322] and the Rudbeckia [0910-0954] are tied for second place with more than 40 each, while the Sunflower or Helianthus [0374-0409], the Rosas [0875-0908], the Acer rubrum [0075-0105], and the Tulip [0997-1026] which are examined in more than 30 images each, hold slightly lower places in Heilman's hierarchy. (Despite this seeming favoritism, he assured me the Sunflower remains his most adored subject). There is no democratic pretense behind what he has chosen to photograph. The lowly "weed" remains an outcast, and however interesting the colors, lines, and growth patterns of the Teraxacum officinale (the common dandelion), the Hypochaeris radicata (hairy cat's ear), or the Daucus carota (Queen Anne's lace), might be to other observers, Heilman shares common prejudices that have sprung up over the years regarding the "unsightly," overly reproductive, and economically useless pests.

At first glance, the overall pictorial presentation resembles a typical field guide format. Decked out in their party colors, newly opened zinnia, gaillardia, and geranium blossoms fill rectangular openings sequentially arranged either longitudinally or horizontally as they do in the pages of the National Wildlife Federation's Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America. But after a moment or two the viewer begins to discern subtle light and color manipulations that have more to do with psychological than descriptive truths. Compositions are often divided into simple mathematical zones. One of Heilman's favorite devices is to cast a plant in melancholic half-shadows, and he frequently relies upon his black velvet curtain for further darkening existing values and for further simplifying a composition. The normally gay and frivolous Eucomis (Pineapple Lily) [0335] blossom is immersed in crepuscular gloom. Centered majestically in its frame, the darkened crown of another Eucomis [0334] strikes a particularly mournful note. When seen in full light, newly opened Digitalis [0258-0260] flowers most often remind one of festive church bells, but in Heilman's portrayal of some darkened examples, they appear to ring out a dirge. The Acer rubrums (red maple fruits and flowers) [075-0105] are among numerous other subjects that share grave and haunting character.

Purple Pineapple Plant
Eucomis, no. 0335

A few of the photographs drive home pedagogic issues and thus invite some explanation. A case in point is the thin stem section of an Asimina triloba [0132] (comprising cork and cork cambium) that was photographed in 1958, while Heilman was still at Ohio State. To my eye, the subject resembled a crumbling brick wall that had been divided into longitudinal bands of rust red above, white in the center, and black at its base. Without a moment's hesitation, Heilman described for me the epic events that were unfolding:

Asimina Triloba
Asimina Triloba, no. 0132

Now this has been artificially colored. This is about the color of this particular bark, and what happens is, you see these cells right here that are all close together?... these right in here?... they're dividing, you see?... these cells right here are dividing because you can see they are a lot smaller and at the surface, they'll divide; and one of them doesn't divide anymore, the bottom one keeps dividing again. It's a new cell and so it produces rows of cells; there are some cells here that are the only ones that can divide; the rest of them, all they do is enlarge, OK? These cells are still alive because they have content. These have died, and before they die, they get a thicker wall. These are the oldest cells, these are the youngest; these are dead also. But before they die they also get built up into them a material called suberin [a wax-like substance].... The epidermis died and the reason it died is because these cells died, so they didn't get any food or water, and so they couldn't divide anymore; these couldn't divide anymore because they are filled up with the suberin.

Similarly contentious is a freak Rudbeckia blossom (coneflower) [0920] photographed in the UT Gardens in 2009 which displays a dark, ugly, snarl of growth exploding out of an otherwise normally developed flower head. Said Heilman:

Rudbeckia, Coneflower, no. 0920
Rudbeckia, Coneflower, no. 0920

That's an odd thing, right there [the result of what is called] proliferation. This is a composite flower like a sunflower, so this [the snarl] is a cluster of flowers. Now we don't know entirely [what caused it]. So what happens instead of like that zinnia we were looking at, the whole development gets screwed up. It started to make normal flowers in that head and then it didn't develop like the zinnia did with the colorful flowers, and then what happened, it started to grow new stems instead of flowers. This is a whole cluster now of flower heads. Something happened with the control of growth [or] something, and it might have been viruses -- changes in the whole developmental mechanism -- and something happens and they start to grow faster than their neighbors.

Nelumbo, no. 0712

Most of Heilman's pictures are close-ups, but some must be distinguished as close close-ups, because these views crop out the familiar anatomical parts like pistil and petal which make the whole subject instantly understandable to us. As exemplified by the pictures of Nelumbo [0712-0720] seed pods, the close close-up creates a new reality or "sur-reality" that borders on fantasy and dream. This transforming character is wonderfully matched with the enlargement capability of the digital media. One expects to see less when preparing to enlarge a thumbnail picture, but instead finds ever greater acuity of color and texture. It is, in a sense, a wholly new pictorial experience. Leaves are often used to create a viewer's pleasurable disorientation. When enlarged, the dark, bluish-grey, tulip leaves [0997, 0998] that Heilman photographed in the UT Gardens in 2009 masterfully demonstrate, on an abstract level, the terrifying energy of the sublime. When seen from afar as proper extensions of the pistil, the style and stigma of tulip blossoms make suitable botanical object lessons in the ways and means of plant reproduction. But in Heilman's close close-ups [1014-1021] a single stigma acquires a provocative resemblance to the human phallus, thereby reminding the viewer that the vegetable and human worlds are not so distant from one another as is sometimes supposed.

Heilman's recent view of the plant world gives some credence to the New Perennials landscape movement, which in its regard for the worthy garden of today values shape and texture as much, if not more, than color. Members of the movement, like Piet Oudolf, believe that one should experience a garden all year, rather than just in its growing seasons. In January and February of 2009, while photographing his Acer japonica (Japanese maple) [0051-0066] series in the UT Gardens, Heilman began emphasizing pictures of dead leaves. Seen in low light against dark backgrounds, each leaf or group of leaves hang from their stems like dried carcasses swinging a la rigor mortis from ropes. Like other close close-ups, the heavily veined leaves suggest a multitude of images, almost all having to do with death and dying. (I cannot help but compare each example to the energized drapery worn by saints in Baroque Italy, particularly those garments that were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his followers.) They are striking images, having for me more interest than the spring and summer sequences that illustrate the early budding and flowering stages of the Acer japonica's "Four Seasons."

When I toured the online collection with Heilman, he interspersed technical information about his camera work with equally intricate descriptions of the specific botanical event we were witnessing, as if suggesting that he considered his means and ends to be totally integral phases of a single process of natural and scientific discovery.

Nelumbo, no. 0721

My favorite photograph, at least for the time being, is Nelumbo (American Lotus) [0721], taken five years ago at the UT Gardens. We do not see, as in the accompanying exposures, the plant's showy light yellow blossoms, but instead a cropped view of a single cobalt-turquoise colored leaf. Upon it rests a perfect orb of glistening water. Ribbed concentrically, the surface of the leaf forms a shallow pocket that delicately balances the droplet. The leaf itself is coated with microscopic protrusions that resist the absorption of water. We behold the "lotus effect," a phenomenon that has inspired paint manufacturers to invent waterproof paint. I can think only of Jan Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring (1665). Lapsing into a hypnotic trance, I wish for my moment with the Nelumbo and its water droplet to extend for hours.

October, 2011