"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Black Iris Variations and Observations

Black Iris Variations and Observations

From Classic Irises and the Men and Women Who Created Them by Clarence E. Mahan:

Amos Perry gave the name ‘Black Prince’ to the first iris he put into commerce because of the color of the flowers. ‘Black Prince’ has flowers with intense blue-violet standards and deep purple, almost black, falls, which have the texture of velvet. The color pattern of ‘Black Prince’ is called ‘neglecta.’ Other irises of this type were available when ‘Black Prince’ was introduced in 1900, but none with falls so dark and of such rich texture.

“The name ‘Black Prince’ was appropriate because of the color of the iris, but the name was also a stroke of advertising genius. What English heart could resist a ‘black iris’ named for the legendary warrior prince? The Royal Horticultural Society gave late-flowering ‘Black Prince’ an Award of Merit the year it was introduced. ‘Black Prince’ soon acquired a reputation for being a ‘slow grower,’ but its alleged lack of vigor did not diminish the desire of English and American gardeners to acquire it.

“Some unscrupulous nurserymen — not Perry — sometimes sold other irises, especially ‘Kochii,’ under the name of ‘Black Prince.’ So common did this practice become that gardeners had reason to believe that the iris’s name evoked another ‘black prince’ mentioned by Shakespeare in All’s Well That Ends Well, namely, ‘the black prince, sir, alias, the prince of darkness; alias, the devil.’

“Some iris experts believe that ‘Black Prince’ is one of the parents of Arthur Bliss’s famous iris progenitor ‘Dominion.’ Perry also thought this to be true. But Bliss did not really know the parentage of ‘Dominion’ and the truth of the matter remains, in the language of Scottish legal verdicts, ‘not proven.'”


The first twelve photos in the galleries below are of some irises from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens that I’ve photographed and written about before — see Black Iris Variations (and Hallucinations) — and the remaining images are of a similar iris I’d not seen previously, but appears to be a related variant. All of them show similar and quite striking black color in their unopened buds and the standards and falls of opened flowers, and they all stand tall on stems ranging from two to four feet high, populated with clusters of blooms.

I was never quite satisfied with the colors I reproduced in that previous post, so with this trip to the gardens I tried to more accurately photograph and represent them as I saw them. Here, for example, is the original version of one of the photos as the camera interpreted it…

… which closely matches how I saw and remembered them. Worth noting here is that it was an overcast but fairly bright day, conditions which provide (in my opinion) the best lighting for flower photography. In this case especially, the diffused sunlight ensured that there were no harsh shadows between parts of the plant. That also had a countervailing effect, however: the flower and its colors appear somewhat neutral and the tonal range of the image seems limited, giving it a flat (could I say lifeless?) appearance, something that is often common with RAW images before any post-processing.

To my eyes (and in my brain), this initial version of the photo shows why this flower is commonly and locally referred to as a “black iris” — even if, botanically speaking, it’s not officially a black iris, of which there are very few since most are dark-dark purple rather than black. And in post-processing, that’s exactly how Lightroom sees it: colors my eyes interpreted as black actually contain various shades of dark purple (and dark blue). Here’s what happens when the only change I make in Lightroom is to increase the photo’s overall brightness…

… and Lightroom exposes the purple (and blue) that the camera actually captured. If I keep increasing brightness, the flowers get even purplier (!!) — making The Photographer wonder what colors are correct, and suggesting that variations between how we perceive color and how a camera can interpret it may be wildly different.

But that takes us back to what I — and not the camera — experienced: irises whose colors appeared mostly as black, especially so on this overcast day. So this becomes the challenge: how to represent the flower as a black iris, yet still create an image that has some interesting color variations, without over-purpling (!!) it. Here’s where I ended out, after experimenting with varying the hue, saturation, and luminance of purple and blue colors, while coming up with a combination of brightness and contrast that preserved the swaths of black. Now you see the colors as I experienced them, especially how each flower petal shifts from shades of purple at the outer edges (and at the stem) towards black at each petal’s center and on their undersides. And by adding a touch of extra detail in Lightroom to each of the blossoms, even the “velvet texture” described in the quotation at the top of this post comes through.

All of the photos in this series got similar treatment, though for each one I made different adjustments to the color variables, since even the slightest changes in cloud cover, background color, or reflected light (as from nearby statues) created variations in purple and blue intensity when the photos were taken.

Overall, this was a fun experiment with color, one that started on a fine spring day when freshly blooming irises were plentiful at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The number of blooms and color variations were surprising (even to me!) and I’m currently working through a backlog of iris photos in shades of brown, orange, peach, white, yellow, more blue and purple, and some with distinct color variations between their standards and falls — like white and purple or yellow and burgundy. The color wheel will be well-represented in all these photos as I post them — along with more history of this regal plant.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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