Yes, you read the title correctly. It’s perfectly okay if you had to re-read it. I know I did when I came across the source of this info! We all love it when we read technology news that makes us drop our jaws in awe. Sometimes it’s a different type of awe though. For example, learning about Google’s glasses was definitely amazing but honestly its not that “shocking” when you consider how far technology has come with smart phones and tablets. I think we all pictured something like that when we think of the future. Kind of like how back in the 80’s when people thought of the future, they pictured flying cars.
Reading about portraits printed with live grass, on the other hand, is more like a “Wait, what? Grass???” It is not something people would wonder about the future. Frankly, most people aren’t going to look at their lawns and think “Oh maybe someday I can grow a portrait made of grass!” – so upon reading this awesome article about Heather Ackroyd’s and Dan Harvey’s creations, one has to marvel at their cleverness (and determination!) to come up with this project.
It all started with an accident in 1990. Ackroyd and Harvey had been working on an art installation (not photography-related) which involved covering a room with grass. A ladder had been left against a wall during the installation exhibit and when it was time to break it down and clean up, they noticed that the grass beneath the ladder had been imprinted with a shadow of it and stayed yellow since it had not received any light. This led them to experiment with grass and light and the way the light projects onto the grass. After years of experimentation, they have now perfected the technique: They grow their installations in a dark room with a 2500-watt projector as the light source. The negatives used are very large and always projected onto a vertical wall in the darkroom because when grass is grown on a vertical wall, it does so in an upward direction; making the entire blade visible, rather than just the tips. A normal photograph takes under a minute to develop; a grass photograph will take about 8 days! The amount of light each section of grass gets is very well controlled so the grass that receives most light will contain the most chlorophyll, and therefore be the darkest. The grass that gets the least light will appear more yellow. The result of this is an interesting tonal range that is actually similar to black & white.
A natural issue with this process of grass portraits is the longevity of the piece. Ackroyd and Harvey were able to combat this issue by using “mutant” grass called Stay-Green, which retained its color long after it died. The longest piece they have had, using Stay-Green, in a show was 18 months. Also, even more impressively, they have had a piece last 5 years in their studio!
Almost all the photographs created are ones they have taken themselves. Regarding their work, Ackroyd says, “When you look at the pieces they are very ghostly…There is a real sense of presence, you really feel like that portrait is present and alive. And I think that is why people are bewitched by the pieces. I think we are very resistant to reducing it to a set of formulas because that would make it about how we do it, and really it’s about why we do it that interest us more.”
To us photographers, the beauty of Ackroyd & Harvey’s work, is that it reminds us of what Photography is and how it started: Experimentation and learning from mistakes can turn into something pretty amazing! Something that is becoming more and more important in today’s digital age.