Botanical CleavageSaturday, May 01, 2010
Among our most cherished convictions, none is more precious than our belief about space and time, yet none is more difficult to explain. The talking fish of Grimm’s fairy tale would have had a great difficulty in explaining how it felt to be always wet, never having tasted the pleasure of being dry. We have similar difficulties in talking about space, knowing neither what it is, nor what it would be like not to be in it. Space and time are “too much with us late and soon” for us to detach ourselves and describe them objectively…
And this could as well be said of space. Though space cannot be defined, there is little difficulty in measuring distances and areas, in moving about, in charting vast courses, or in seeing through millions of light years. Everywhere there is overwhelming evidence that space is our natural medium and confronts us with no insuperable problems.
Mathematics and the Imagination, Edward Kasner and James Newman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1940
It was at about this time of the year when I would either call my friend Donald Hodgson or he would call me. We would meet in my garden. This is what he always said, “Alex, there is something about emerging hostas in May. They are pristine, fresh and green. They are wonderful.” I never did disagree on this.
Hodgson died two years ago and I miss comparing notes on all that we agreed on. He had a backyard wholesale hosta business and he sold proven winners to the best nurseries in town. His hostas came in big containers with a paper label stuck on the side with an explanation of the virtues of the plant. I miss Hodgson for many reasons but the main one is that I know of nobody I call call and say, “How’s your Hosta montana ‘Aureomarginata’ doing? Is your Hosta ‘Sagae’ up already?
As I write this (Friday afternoon) I can look out of the window into my back garden and I can see all those hostas, Rosemary’s perennials, the ferns, the conifers. It is all a sea of greens of every imaginable and unimaginable hue.
This morning I had coffee with my friend Ian Bateson at the Sear’s Starbucks. A very young couple was sitting nearby. She was around 20 and she had a striped short sleeved shirt with a moderate scoop. Her skin was lightly tanned. Perhaps she was a tree planter or she had recently returned from a vacation in Hawaii. She was wearing no makeup. She looked fresh, happy. She has a whole life in front of her. I stared at her hint of cleavage and found it wonderful and refreshing. It was sunny outside. It is spring. My spirits soared a tad.
I thought about cleavage and how as a 15 year-old I had purchased as many cheap Mexican tabloids that featured pictures of Brigitte Bardot. Mexico in the middle 50s was very conservative. This young boy had never ever seen a woman in the nude. The closest was Bardot’s cleavage. I was obsessed by her cleavage. I soon caught on to the porteño (Buenos Aires born) trick of offering my seat to young women in the bus during the summer. This way I could stand up and look down.
As a photographer I have understood most of my life that light affects how we perceive things in our three-dimensional world. In flat lighting, with contrast diminished one can lose the idea of depth. On the other hand as a garden photographer I also understand that the increased contrast of a sunny day will make it difficult to convey all those wonderful shades of green that can be seen in a garden.
It was photographer Bert Stern who in the 50s pioneered a form of portrait lighting that helped make people stand out from the background. His light emphasized the curves of the body. Since photographs have the problem of conveying three dimensions in two, it is the shading, the range between the blacks and the whites (the grays) that hints at that third dimension which is depth. Stern would position his light at 45 degrees from the line between his camera and his subject. He would then raise that light and point it down at 45 degrees toward his subject. This light was the light with which he shot the early covers for Cosmopolitan. Those of us who know call it “cleavage lighting”. The modern method of using an on-camera flash, straight on, will not produce any noticeable cleavage no matter how expensive that Canon digital camera may be.
So what is this obsession over cleavage? I cannot speak for others. I find it fascinating since the paradox of it all is that I am obsessed with something that isn’t. Ankles are. Legs are. A face is. Breasts are. But cleavage is the absence of anything and it (whatever that which is not, that is) lies between three dimensional masses (small, smallish, bigger, big) that are the breasts. Breasts do not have to be big to create cleavage. To create cleavage, as Bert Stern knew (and knows as he is very much alive) you need light. Again I cannot speak for others. For me an attractive cleavage is one that is not overly prominent. It has to be just right and I know when it is just right.
It was always just right when I photographed Katheryn Petersen, in the two pictures here. No matter what Katheryn did, how she dressed or didn't her cleavage was most attractive.
Many who might have gone to the ballet may have noticed that classical ballerinas are generally flat chested. I have been afraid to ask as to why. Some say it has to do with what early ballet training does to the young woman’s body.
I have noticed exceptions through the years. One fine exception was Gail Skrela who danced with Ballet BC. The former Globe & Mail arts reporter Chris Dafoe used to tell me, “Alex, my favourite Ballet BC dancer is Gail Skrela. She has cleavage.” I never did ask what magazines he used to buy when he was around 15 but we obviously have much in common.
Then there was the exquisite Andrea Hodge, a classic and classical ballerina who danced for Ballet BC. She was flat and nature compensated by giving her long legs and a noble nose. When I photographed her once in a fashion spread for the Straight I used the Bert Stern formula. She looked at the Polaroid and smiled. “Alex, you have given me cleavage!”
I suspect that my interest in cleavage comes from the English side of my family. In Spanish there is no real word for cleavage. The closest is escote. A dress with escote is a low-cut dress. The word describes that which shows or creates the cleavage but not the cleavage itself. It would seem that we Latins like to glance down to bottoms or to the side, the breasts. We are much too practical to get excited about that which does not exist.
Perhaps it is this duality in me, the English and the Latin that made me go out this afternoon to snap a picture of an emerging Hosta nigrescens (it is a lovely species hosta) with my new iPhone. It seems to me that the vase shaped plant, in its pristine beauty resembles in form that concavity, that nonexistent space, that lies between the breasts. What do you think of that, Donald Hodgson?