“I must have flowers, always, and always.” – Claude Monet
Flowers have long inspired artists, both literary and visual, with their beauty, their textures, their scents. They have historically embraced a range of meanings and sprigs of associative connotations: romantic affection, faith, fertility and sorrow, to name but a few. If in Victorian England, flowers were also used to pass secret messages through the meanings they accumulated, becoming the language of courtship, love, friendship, and more; in traditions of portraiture, as in mythology, they were used as symbolic representations of attributes, personality or inclinations. In Ken Hermann’s Flower Man, however, flowers are neither simply visually beautiful or decorative, nor entirely symbolic and alluding to meanings outside the frame—in these photographs, flowers are part of everyday life, of labour. They are who these men are, and what they do.
In India, flowers form a significant aspect of cultural and ritual activities, from worship in temples and pujas, to decorative elements during festivals, weddings and other events. Flower garlands are used to greet guests, honour deities and play particularly important roles in wedding rituals. Malik Ghat flower market, on the banks of the Hoogly river in Calcutta, is one of the largest and oldest markets of its kind. It attracts more than 2,000 sellers each day, who flock there to peddle their blooms amid the noise and bustle.
While in Calcutta on another shoot, Danish photographer, Ken Hermann, visited the market and found himself captivated by these sellers, whose magnificent garlands seemed to be in stark contrast to their own dusty and sweat-soaked attire. His fascination with them, drew him back about three years later to photograph them for his next series. Accompanied by a local guide and translator, he approached the sellers. When he found that the female traders were uncomfortable with the idea and refused to be photographed, he decided to make the project a male preserve. With the men, he notes: “There were different reactions. Because the market is so busy, the main concern was that they would lose customers while they posed. I paid some of them; others were happy to do it in exchange for prints; some just wanted to be a part of the project.”
Finding the market too chaotic to prove functional as a backdrop, and desiring a plain uniform background for his portraits, Hermann took the men down to the Hoogly river. This provided him a more neutral setting, allowing the colours and his subjects to pop out. “For this project I wanted to overexpose the background so all of them were shot when the sun is straight above,” in the harsh light of noon, he writes, adding that “Kolkata is hazy because of the smog and I wanted this really bright style … it gave it a nice touch instead of a [typical] sunset type background.” The overexposure in combination with the smog, give these photographs a semi-surreal effect, only compounded by his subjects—seen in a variety of poses, some holding slender bouquets, while others barely visible behind cloaks of flowers.
Hermann writes that one of the main things that captivated him about the sellers on his first trip, was the way they transported or carried their flowers, where “sometimes it almost looked like they was wearing big, flower dresses.” Additionally, he liked how, “strong and masculine men handled these flowers with so much care, like they were precious things.” His intriguing portraits effectively capture this, making a larger point about socially constructed gender stereotypes, and turning them on their head—with men who stand largely self-assured, confident and proud, rarely even smiling, sometimes gazing intensely into the lens, even while gently clutching a bundle of flowers to their chest. The contrast is built through the stoic men—authentically responding to the camera as opposed to plastering fake and easy smiles—and the flowers, that carry their own socially constructed weight of being beautiful, delicate and feminine, and lend to these men a gentle air of sensitivity, rounding out the rough and sharp edges. Highlighting the difficulties and issues with such absolute assumptions within the series itself however, are the photographs of men sporting mango leaves. In some ways, this series may also be seen as breaking down assumptions of class. Although the flower sellers hail from poorer segments of society, these portraits present them in the form of everyday heroes, a running theme in Hermann’s work.
Although the series may be seen as exotic in a certain sense, with its colourful flowers and tones of anthropological typology, Hermann’s photographs highlight the dignity of his ‘flower men’, exemplary of photography that is considerate to both to its subjects and socio-cultural environment.
*Title, quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
To see more of Hermann’s work, please visit his website, or follow him on Instagram (@kenhermann).
Based in Copenhagen, Ken Hermann possesses a natural urge to explore photography and world alike. He has traveled extensively, from secluded regions of India and Ethiopia to modern metropolises like New York. From every location, no matter how small or large, Hermann draws energy and inspiration; exploration of people, culture, and life is a central facet to his work, which is full of texture, volume, and atmosphere. From these experiences, he applies a cosmopolitan aesthetic to his commercial and editorial work. He is the winner of Hasselblad Masters 2012 for his City Surfer work.