The British photographer’s connection to flowers stems from the memory of her mother
“These images are dark, but so was my mood [when I made them]. It was a troubling time for everyone, I was worried about the future, but I was also worried about my health.” British artist Celine Marchbank is speaking about her project Shot In Isolation, which began during the first UK lockdown in April 2020. Through rich, painterly scenes of flowers in low light, the photos in the series convey a brooding, melancholic atmosphere. They visualise both a personal and communal anxiety. Like many other people, Marchbank had lost most of her work. She also contracted Covid-19, and even though she was struggling through the symptoms, she still wanted something creative to do.
After photographing various things around her house to no avail, she slowly started to turn her attention to the flowers. “They became the only real physical presence of time passing at that moment, when the whole world seemed to be standing still,” she recalls. And so began photographing them. The process was simple. Each day, she picked flowers from her garden or allotment and placed them in a vase or a bottle. She arranged them on her tiny kitchen table and began to take pictures with a digital camera. “Some I’d photograph the day I’d picked them, but many I’d watch to see how they aged over the days, and then photograph them later. Some I would photograph multiple times, at different stages of wilting and dying,” she says. Some of the flowers she chose had a special meaning for Marchbank. The roses that had once grown in her mother’s garden and were now growing in hers, for instance. Other subjects were just weeds she’d normally overlook. She worked between 5 – 7pm every day, and each photoshoot lasted no more than 20 to 30 minutes. She continued daily through to the 31 May, when restrictions were eased.
In the void of any sort of regular routine, Shot In Isolation was meditative and therapeutic for Marchbank. It was a “nice pressure” she says, away from her usual way of working. “Much of my work is made over many years. I like to sit with things, decide how I feel about the images, but this had none of that. It was freedom.”
“I am interested in the way flowers visually represent the ageing process. Flowers express the effects of time in a very short period. They remind me of the mortality of everything around us. We are literally watching them die on a daily basis but it is such a beautiful process.”
Marchbank’s last photobook, Tulip – a tender and poetic retelling of the last year of her mother’s life –was published in 2016. Flowers featured centrally in that project too. They also feature in A Stranger in My Mother’s Kitchen – a series exploring the artist’s grieving process following her mother’s death. What binds all of this work is the exploration of illness and death through the language and life cycle of flowers. In A Stranger and Tulip it was her mother’s illness; in Shot In Isolation it is her own. “I suppose what I like about flowers are two things,” she says. “First, they remind and connect me to my mother, because she loved flowers and they always filled her home. And secondly, I am interested in the way flowers visually represent the ageing process. Flowers express the effects of time in a very short period. They remind me of the mortality of everything around us. We are literally watching them die on a daily basis but it is such a beautiful process.”
Marchbank has recovered from Covid-19 and is slowly getting back to normal by working on A Stranger in My Mother’s Kitchen in photobook form, with publisher Dewi Lewis. She is also working on a book for Shot In Isolation, but that one will be self-published – a choice that feels right to complete the process of working alone for all those weeks last year.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London