"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Winter Shapes: Hydrangeas and Japanese Maple Leaves in Black and White

From “Structure” and “Tonal Nuance” in Black & White Photography by Michael Freeman:

“Image possibilities that contain a strong potential for structure notably include elements of line and shape, almost always heightened by some form of contrast….

“Black and white enhances these possibilities by taking away the distraction of colour, forcing more attention on the contrast across edges….

“Physiologically, our visual system responds more sensitively to some hues than to others, which is why yellows and yellow-greens are brighter to our eyes. But more than this, there is our psychological response to different hues. One simple example of this is that ‘hot’ colours around orange are readily associated with flame and burning, and also the production of light. Most people feel these to be inherently brighter than, say, blues, which we tend to associate with water, coolness, and dim light.

“Take this away, and the tonal scale simplifies dramatically. What this allows is a clearer, purer concentration on the subtleties of transition between shades of gray.”

Hello! A few days ago I posted a some photos of hibernating hydrangea and Japanese maple leaves; here are the same photos, rendered in black and white, and modified with various filters in the Nik Collection to create additional contrast and detail, add a bit of glowing softness, and shift the black-and-white tones to a touch of silver-blue.

At the end of this post, there is a before-and-after gallery, if you would like to compare the color and black-and-white versions.

Thanks for taking a look!

Here are the before-and-after images; select the first one to compare versions in a slideshow.

Winter Shapes: Hydrangeas and Japanese Maple Leaves

From Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“It takes practice to get the look you want, and each situation is unique in what it presents in terms of light, color, and pattern. The best way to determine a reference point for this type of picture is simply to experiment and see what you get.”

From Light on the Landscape: Photographs and Lessons from a Life in Photography by William Neill:

“When trees are bare, their graceful forms are starkly revealed. The tones of beige and gray or black and white form a subtle palette in the landscape. The lines of grass and shrub, ice and fallen leaves, display themselves in simple, elegant designs, like a drawing or etching…. Winter photography offers us options at all scales.”


I liked the first quotation above because it accurately expressed what I was trying to do with the photographs in the galleries below. Winter color in my part of the southeastern United States is often an odd mix of monochrome interspersed with bright whites, pale yellows, and greens from those hardy plants that don’t mind temperatures in the forty-to-fifty degree range; so some days I go hunting for washed-out colors and other days I look out for hidden bits of bright color instead. These photos are from a mostly-monochrome day.

The first five photos show the remnants of Japanese Maple leaves still clinging to their branches; and the six that follow are desiccated hydrangea leaves and flowers — all with some color and luminance adjustments (among other things) and with their backgrounds “painted” black.

Given the fine details within each of these photos, Lightroom stumbled a little at automatic subject selection; and I ended out spending quite a few hours carefully mousing around the edges of these leaves and branches to get the look I wanted. In the end, there were only a few photos in this set that I was satisfied with, but decided to post them anyway since that’s what experiments are all about: seeing (and in this case, sharing) what you get. I may take a shot at converting some of these to black and white; they might look good that way, and help reduce what (to me, at least) appear to be flaws in these renderings.

The last gallery, at the end of this post, shows the before-and-after versions of each of the five maple leaf photos and six hydrangea photos.

Thanks for taking a look!

Here are the before-and-after images; there were a lot of details to paint! 🙂

Hydrangeas on Black Backgrounds (and Hunting for Hortense)

From A Complete Guide to Orchard and Garden, Volume 12, published in 1890 by J. T. Lovett:

“The hydrangea, with good reason, has always been a favorite inmate of the garden. It is true, that in the old days we had only Hydrangea Hortensia; but it had several places in the garden and a big one in the heart….

“On Long Island it was seldom winter-killed, and it may now be considered a hardy plant in the latitude of New York City, except in an unusually cold winter. The plant itself is rarely winter-killed. The buds on last season’s grown, however, are sometimes either killed or badly injured as to destroy the bloom; for it is on this growth that we depend for flowers. It was a more or less common practice, therefore, to drive stakes around the plant on the approach of winter, and cover the plants loosely with dead leaves when the ground began to freeze hard, but not before….

“With a simple protection of this kind, all the Japanese hydrangeas might be grown considerably north of New York.”

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“The garden hydrangea was named Hortensia by Philibert Commerson, who accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage around the world in 1766 (see ‘Bougainvillea‘). It is usually supposed that the name “hortensia” was after Mlle. Hortense, daughter of the prince of Nassau; the latter had joined Bougainville’s expedition in order to escape his creditors. But it is worth noting that the woman named Jeanne Baret, who had sailed on the voyage disguised as a boy (called Jean), changed her name to Hortense when she settled in France. We will never really know why. Anyway, in 1830 the name was changed to Hydrangea macrophylla (large leaved), by which it is now known.”

Here are the last of the summer 2021 hydrangeas, at least from me. I took a few of my favorite images from the previous three posts and painted the backgrounds black.

With the first day of autumn already in the past and the onset (perhaps temporarily) of some cooler temperatures here, I have only a few more summer flower photos (of lantana) to work on, then will go I-spying-with-my-little-eyes on some fall color hunting expeditions. I haven’t decided yet where that will take me, though I’m sure Oakland Cemetery and the nearby Grant Park will make the list, but I’ll also probably add the Atlanta History Center (which has a large woodland area surrounding the property); Fernbank Forest, an old growth urban wildwood not far from my home behind Fernbank Museum; and the humongous, recently opened, 280-acre Westside Park (whose Bellwood Quarry was used as a filming location for several episodes of The Walking Dead).

I selected the quotes at the top of this post after poking around on Google Books for references to hydrangeas in 19th-century publications. The first one (from a long-running gardening journal published in the mid- to-late-1800s) interested me by being situated in New York City and New York State, which — even in the far northern and short-summer part of the state I’m originally from — has gardens with giant hydrangeas blooming from late spring to early fall. A testament, I think, to the hydrangea’s hardiness and its ability to adapt to and tolerate a wide range of weather and soil conditions that it does so well in a region where summer lasts about twenty minutes.

That quote also mentioned “Hydrangea Hortensia” — which I knew to be an early hydrangea name, one that’s still not uncommonly used to describe hydrangeas, especially the large mophead varieties. As I have written about before, our gardens are populated with plants and flowers discovered and named during the 1800s and early 1900s, and hydrangeas are no exception. I started digging into the source of the “Hortensia” name variation and quickly fell into a Tiny History Rabbit Hole (should I trademark that phrase?) and found that while the story had similar characteristics wherever I read about it, it was not exactly clear which “Hortense” (referred to in the second quote above as “Mlle. Hortense, daughter of the prince of Nassau”) was the actual Hortensia Hortense.

Several hours and many Hortenses later, I landed on Hortense van Nassau from 1771, asked Google to translate that web page from Dutch to English, and had something I’d already expected more-or-less confirmed: the typical reference to “Hortensia” as named after Hortense de Beauharnais — she of Napoleon-adjacent breeding and briefly a Dutch queen — was unlikely since she wasn’t born until 15-20 years after Commerson dubbed hydrangeas with their early European name. Commerson’s Hortense was more likely the daughter of Karl Heinrich von Nassau-Siegen, who did join the Bougainville-Commerson expedition and was the dude “escaping his creditors” by spiriting himself away with the plant explorers. That dear Karl was a fortune-teller apparently didn’t include actually earning (or, I suppose, inheriting) a fortune. (Note to self: if you disappear into the woods for a few weeks, you’ll still have to pay your mortgage.)

Haha! I spent most of my Friday on this research … and of Hortenses and Hortensias you now know everything I know, which may or may not be enough.

My previous hydrangea posts for 2021 are:

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (1 of 2)

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (2 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (1 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (2 of 2)

Pink Mophead Hydrangeas (Five Variations)

Big Blue (and Black and White) Hydrangea Blooms

Thirteen Hydrangeas

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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