"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Black Iris Variations (and Hallucinations)

Black Iris Variations (and Hallucinations)

From “The Handling of Colour” in Irises: Their Culture and Selection by Gwendolyn Anley:

“Iris is a Greek word originally applied to the rainbow; no other name could so well describe a flower which provides us with such a wonderful range of colour. Here to our hand is a magic palette furnished with living colour with which to paint our canvas. We can pass from the most ethereal ice-blue through lavender, mauve and violet to black-purple….

“White, ivory and primrose merge into yellow and thence to orange, which, in turn, glows into copper and deepens into chocolate-brown. Soft grey flushes to pink and this resolves into old rose, wine red and mahogany. Nor must magenta be forgotten — that curiously intriguing colour which antagonises us in youth and is only appreciated at its true value when we reach middle age — a difficult colour admittedly, but one which stimulates the colour-sense and which, if thoughtfully and skilfully used, adds interest and vivacity to a mixed colour border.”

From “Over the Rainbow: Bearded Irises and Your Garden” in A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“The mainstream gardening public is smitten with blue, but the horticultural deviants of the world lust for black. Black flowers are seductive, luring gardeners in with a color it seems we’re just not supposed to have. Black irises rev it up a notch with large, ruffled flowers and silken petals that drip with color; their novelty and rarity entice the senses….

“Fortunately for iris lovers, black flowers run the gamut of the bearded iris continuum…. Always about packing plants together into whatever space I have, I love black irises for all the things you can do with them in the garden. Black and yellow, black and white, black and red, black and orange, black and pink all sound colorfully exciting because of the drama and contrast they bring to the garden setting. What plant can really bring as much drama to the herbaceous border in May as a black bearded iris?”


This is true: No one ever steps in the same garden twice.

That’s my botanical version of the well-known Heraclitus concept of a natural world that constantly changes. If you have a garden, or visit public gardens, or even have some houseplants, you know what it means. When I photograph plants and flowers at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — as I so often do — I’m immersed in a slice of nature that always feels familiar, yet is different every time. It encompasses 48 acres — over two million square feet — of exotic and Georgia-native flora, so I (apparently!) never run out of photographic subjects.

I went iris-hunting two weeks ago, knowing that many of the property’s irises bloom in early May. I chose the quotation at the top of this post — which describes the many iris flower colors — because it so accurately represents the range of colors I encountered. About an hour into my photo shoot, though, I remembered the irises featured below: irises commonly referred to by people in my ‘hood as “black irises” and the only irises on the property that look like this.

It’s an especially fascinating flower to photograph and process, because of it’s tonal range and different textures. In Adobe Lightroom (as in most photo editing programs), there are hue, saturation, and luminance panels that let you adjust individual colors in a photograph: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta. This iris is one of the very rare flowers that contains every single one of those colors, so great fun can be had playing around with the adjustments just to see how the appearance of the flower changes by increasing or decreasing individual colors. In the rest of this post, I explore what that means.

I took these photographs on two separate trips to the garden: the first one a brightfully sunny day, and the second one an overcast day that gradually gave way to peaking sunlight. These first four photographs — taken on the sunny day — show one unopened and several partially-opened blooms. The tip of the unopened bloom and the ruffled edges of the others are such a deep purple and dark blue combination that — especially in bright sun — they absorb so much light that they appear black…. which may explain why this flower is informally called a black iris.

As the flowers open, shades of purple dominate, but the ruffles still show the same saturated purple-blue blend that looks black. Bright sunlight created intense shadows on each flower petal, but also brought out the red, orange, and yellow colors near the centers.

While processing the photos above, I started wondering how they would look without the bright lighting, so went back on a second day — when it was overcast, the morning after nighttime thunderstorms — to take another set of photos. In these eleven images, you see the effects of softer light: the appearance of black around the edges of the petals is less prevalent, and the purple (and some of the blue) now dominate. As you progress through the eleven photos, you also progress through the changing sunlight: it was cloudiest when I took the first four photos, then the clouds started to disperse by the time I took the last ones. By the final image in this series, we’re back to nearly full sunlight again, and black reasserts its prominence.

Here’s where these irises live, in front of a grave marker that is so old it’s mostly illegible. You can, however, just make out the year on the gravestone — it’s 1858 — and in my Victorian imagination, these irises have grown here for over 160 years. That’s not likely of course — but I did just say I was imagining that!

Anthocyanin is the pigment that produces purple, blue, or black color in flowers — though black is often just saturated (or heavily shadowed) renditions of purple and blue. The pigment is so intense (and near the outer boundaries of colors camera sensors can capture) that digital cameras have trouble accurately reproducing it — which is why you often see blue or purple flower photographs whose color appears unnatural. These pigments can also be challenging during post-processing: you may think you’re recreating the flower’s real-life colors, but since they vary so much depending on the lighting conditions and even slight adjustments you make, it’s hard to be sure. And, really, what is “real-life” anyway?

Because there is so much purple and blue in these irises, altering those colors in Lightroom can produce variations that are quite striking. Here’s one of the iris photos as it came out of the camera. You might think that this must be the flower’s color — but you’d be wrong because I overexposed the image to capture more detail in the shadows. That brightened the image overall, and, in doing so, created greater emphasis on the purple colors over the blue. The swatches of blue you see on the two falling petals would have appeared darker (nearly black) if the image was not overexposed.

Here’s the image after I completed processing it, with adjustments to add texture and detail, add saturation to the blue and purple colors, deepen the shadows and blacks, and add brightness to the reds and oranges at the flower’s center. This is the same image as one I posted above, repeated here as the starting point for some fun times in Lightroom.

Here I removed most of the blue color from the original image, by shifting its hue from blue to purple. The flower is now more consistently purple in this version, since the blue that threads through the center of the petals and blue pixels throughout have been replaced with purple. Could this be the flower’s actual color?

In this variation, I took an opposite approach: I left the blue color alone but shifted the purple color toward blue. This could be the iris’s actual color — it’s not hard to find blue irises like this — couldn’t it?

For this variation, I shifted purple to magenta. Much of the blue falls out of the image, and I end out with a color that may or may not appear natural to you. This might also happen if a similarly-colored image was taken with the wrong white balance, or if a purple/blue image was viewed on a device with a warmer (more yellow, like sunlight) display setting.

This Pepto-Bismol version rattles the brain — or perhaps the stomach — a little, but if I had posted all the images with this treatment, could I convince you the flowers looked like this? I think I might get away with it….

None of these three variations are outside the range of what an iris might look like, if you looked at it in a garden under different lighting conditions. The third is a stretch, perhaps, but only if you haven’t encountered magenta-colored irises in the wild.

For this final variation, I got buzzed on a fourth cup of coffee and started hallucinating, as one does. I frenetically tapped out combined color adjustments: I shifted blue towards purple and purple towards magenta, then added saturation to blue, purple, and magenta. A winged pollinator might see the flower in a similar way, with the iridescent aqua and blue colors running from the edges of the petals to the center like a runway pointing to the flower’s hot-spot. I know this because I used to be a bee (this may or may not be true). Yet you, as a human, don’t see it like that: you probably conclude this is an inaccurate color scheme for an iris blossom…

… but I guess I should ask: if you think it’s wrong, how do you know?

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


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