In the still life tradition, flowers and fruit often represent the broad symbolism of life, death, or perhaps a season — the drama of time passing. Floral designer and photographer Doan Ly treats her still-life photographs similarly, using the arrangement of blooms to speak to an expansive theme.
“When the flower transcends being a flower and becomes this feeling of hope, longing, or sadness, it’s able to become a little larger than life,” Ly said. The artist sees the trope as a common heritage of human experience: “We all have experience and access to fruit and flowers,” she said. Part of her intention is to highlight the universal nature of these materials, and the universal feelings they bring out in people: anyone who has touched, smelled, sunk their teeth into, or otherwise devoured her artistic materials in one form or another.
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Ly didn’t expect to get into the flower business. While managing and living in a nonprofit intentional community in New York City, she found work-life balance a bit difficult. “To force myself to not work all the time, I got a job at a plant shop that my friend opened, to have a commitment to leave the house,” she explained. “From there, it just grew and grew.” Grew it did. After seven years, Ly gained the confidence to open up her own floral studio, called a.p. bio.
She quickly realized, however, that teaching herself how to photograph her work was how she would attract clients of her own. Ly’s Instagram account has over 160,000 followers for her intensely saturated flower compositions, the petals interspersed with geometric objects, vases, and sometimes human figures. For ARTnews, Ly breaks down her photo “Phase 24 of Reopening,” seen below. Beyond its visual beauty, it also captures a hint of quarantine humor.
The blooms provide a soft canopy to the image as they loom over the delicate offering of fruit beneath them. When she began composing images with flowers, Ly learned by trial and error, figuring out what changes when a photo is taken. “What you see when someone sends you an arrangement is completely different than what the camera reads,” she explained. It’s all about sculpting, “in terms of using the colors and shapes of flowers to create negative space or to fill in.” As it happens, she had limited access to fresh flowers when creating this piece, which allowed her to fill in the image in with other material.
“Cherries were in season,” Ly said, “And the blush strawberry is only around for about a week.” The ephemeral nature of “Phase” adds to its power — the photo captures what would otherwise decay. The melon adds another sculptural element to the piece, with its ovular shape and bowl-like divot. “I think about how you expand their physical being into something that can be overwhelming or larger than what it is,” Ly said. “They can become “not a fruit!’”
Lighting & Reflections
The hazy glow in the photo is not the product of careful editing, but of long exposure and a simple overhead light above Ly’s kitchen table. “There’s something about the time of the long exposure that gives the ephemeral feel,” she said. “I don’t do a lot of editing; it’s all in the camera.”
Drawn to the natural colors of her materials, she added a reflective surface that creates the appearance of a tablecloth. “Reflections are decadent, shimmering — it makes you think of a club, a table from the ‘80s,” she said. “It’s distorted.” Reflections do more than enhance the scene’s decadence; Ly uses mirrors to show the subconscious. “It’s subterranean. It’s altered. Reshaped.” Her work isn’t just a still life; when Ly looks at flowers or fruit, she sees a story: “the relationship of that space and who inhabits that world,” she said. “The silence of that world and how it tugs at you.”