Cy DeCosse’s floral photographs have often been described as magical—and never more so than these in his exhibition Midnight Garden. These are flowers few people ever see—blooms that open at dusk and, like enchanted beings in fairy tales, disappear before the morning’s sunrise. Cy captures the evanescent beauty of 18 of these little-known flowers. The printed images are made in platinum, a medium that perfectly captures the luminous quality of moonlit beauty emerging from darkness.
Cy’s interest in night-blooming plants came to him when he heard about one of them, a vine from the jungles of Central America that was growing at a local conservatory. Because the plant bloomed infrequently and only at night, even the conservatory staff had rarely seen the flower, although the blossom was said to be so spectacular it was called ‘Queen of the Night’. Intrigued, Cy persuaded the caretakers to let him know when a bud was forming.
One summer evening, he got the call and set up his large-format camera. There was no guarantee that the bud would open that night; however, as dusk fell, the tightly wrapped petals began to loosen and then, in the growing darkness, to very slowly and gradually unfurl. A pungent peppery fragrance filled the air, becoming stronger as the flower opened. At last the delicate white petals stretched to their full extent, 8 inches in diameter, proving the aptness of the flower’s royal name.
Cy had photographed many flowers over the years, but this experience was so unlike any other that he wondered about the possibility of capturing images of other night-bloomers. Research showed that a number of cactuses and other plants, pollinated by moths, bats and insects active at night, had flowers that opened after daylight faded. Cy decided to find and photograph as many of these ephemeral beauties as possible.
Shooting the cactuses required a trip to Arizona during their spring bloom time—and climbing up ladders to reach the flowers on arms of giant saguaros. Back home in Minnesota, a local conservatory and a water lily grower allowed Cy special after-hours access to their collections. He found that a few plants could be ordered through nurseries, grown in pots in the backyard, and then shot in his studio. Others had to be grown from seed.
Since the growing season is so short in Minnesota, these plants had to be started under lights in the spring, potted and then carefully nurtured outside once the weather warmed. Little information was available on how much sun, water and warmth the plants preferred, so a group of gardeners volunteered to try them in different locations. For several summers, Cy was “on call” when these volunteers sent word that buds were forming and might bloom that evening. He had to contend with wind, rain and mosquitoes, and also to learn exactly when each flower reached its peak—some in the early evening hours, while others just at dawn. He found that when he was shooting in the dark, strobe lights provided a quick burst of brightness but did not interrupt the plants’ bloom cycles.
Night-blooming flowers are mostly light colored, often the subtlest shades of white and pink, so as to attract pollinating moths or insects in the dark. The strong contrast between the bright flowers and the darkness in which they dwell makes their stems and leaves difficult to photograph. Cy thus turned to printing the images in platinum, which has an infinite gray scale, ideally suited to capturing very faint differences in light or dark. Platinum brings out the barely visible patterns of the flower petals and leaves while not detracting the viewer’s focus from the brilliant white flowers. The subtle textures and infinite shading of light and dark achieved with platinum enhances the mysterious feeling of this magical garden glimpsed by moonlight.
Of the magic created by Cy’s prints, critic John Wood wrote, “There is a luminosity in the lights and velvet depths to the darks that can take your breath. It is simply not present in the work of any other photographic artist. I have never seen platinum prints I have been so tempted to touch; I want to actually feel those dark, textured leaves, to really enter DeCosse’s garden.”
Similarly, Mary Abbe, art critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, stated, “Moody and lush, DeCosse’s prints are masterpieces of light and shadow in which a flower’s pristine petals float in translucent beauty above dark, velvety leaves and stems.”
Cy’s focus on light began in his first days as a photographer. He had recently finished art school and begun a career as an agency art director when he won a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy in 1954. The fellowship gave Cy the opportunity to study in Florence with Renzo Maggini, a noted photographer and teacher. In 2001, he was able to pay tribute to this first mentor with a show in Florence titled The Play of the Light, a phrase he remembered Maggini stressing.
Cy specializes in close-up images and often presents his subjects against hand-painted backdrops using old photographic processes such as photogravure, platinum and gum bichromate. He frequently exhibits in Florence and has had several one-person shows in New York and Santa Fe.
Platinum and 3-Color Gum Dichromate Prints
A selection from three exhibitions - Flowers of Legend and Myth, Flowers Exotic and Rare and The Four Seasons. All three shows were shown at the John Stevenson Gallery in New York, NY.
Cy brings his background of artist and art director to the art of photogaphy. His love of photography began in Florence, Italy as a Fulbright student. His learning continued as he collaborated with many of America’s best photographers in his career as an agency Art Director. Cy believes in close, intimate images that show ordinary things in a surprising new light. He paints backgrounds that “float” the subject in a world of its own. Alternative processes give his images a look that is different and approriate to the moment.
In 1994, DeCosse began exploring the historical process of platinum printing for two years and in 1996 was joined by Keith Taylor as printer. In 2000 they began working with polymer photogravure and later, the 3-color gum dichromate process.
Cy DeCosse was born in 1929 in Valley City, North Dakota and began his career working at a Minneapolis advertising agency.
In 1954 he won a Fulbright scholarship and was sent to Florence where he studied with Renzo Maggini, a gifted teacher who provided DeCosse’s only formal photographic instruction.
Upon returning to Minnesota, DeCosse resumed his career in advertising, becoming an art director and later a Vice President of Campbell-Mithun Advertising. In 1969 DeCosse formed his own firm, which offered creative services for marketing and later expanded into book publishing.
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