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

Cool White Irises

From Iris: The Classic Bearded Varieties by Claire Austin:

“Over the past century the development of the bearded iris has been tremendous. At the beginning of this period the flowers came in only white, yellow or purple, or occasionally a combination of all three colours. This often resulted in a murky blend of muted shades. Since then, hybridizers have expanded the range into a vast rainbow of colours — and as the number of tones has increased, so has the size of the flower. Because of this, the petals, which once were smooth and delicate in shape, are now of necessity ruffled, fluted and thick in substance….

“The earliest bearded iris hybrids date back to the early 1800s and were raised in the UK and France, from seedlings selected by nurserymen from naturally occurring open-pollinated crosses. It soon became apparent that an incredible number of variations could occur, so by the beginning of the twentieth century, nurseries were embarking seriously on full-blown breeding programmes. As a consequence, the bearded iris rapidly developed beyond all recognition and by the mid-twentieth century hundreds of new plants were being introduced each year.”

From “White Iris” in Thinking of Angels: Poems by Winifred Robins:

A white iris blossom floats
     in the turquoise dish,
its beauty never more apparent,
     its pristine ruffles pure.

Iris clusters vie for space
     across the flower bed
multicolored in their glory.
     The one I clipped today,

before me on the table,
     holds perfection in its petals
and treats my eyes to all the beauty
     they can hold.


On a day forecasted to be the hottest of the year so far — with temperatures expected to rise to the small 100s — I thought it would be nice to assemble and post this collection of soft-white iris photos, originally taken on a shady day. I feel cooler already!

Thanks for taking a look!

Brown Iris Mix

From A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“Brown, like black, has an allure for color-crazed folks keen on one-upping the gardening neighborhood. Sure, everyone has some bronze-colored mums in September, but who has cinnamon and chocolate and copper in May other than an iris lover?

“Most brown irises trace back to antecedents like Iris variegata and a Havana-brown tall bearded from France called ‘Jean Cayeux’ (Cayeux 1931). But it was an Oregon doctor, Rudolph Kleinsorge, who really transformed the iris world, with irises like ‘Aztec Copper’ (1939), ‘Daybreak’ (1941), and ‘Goldbeater’ (1944). These new color breaks took the iris world by storm. Kleinsorge’s crowning achievement, ‘Tobacco Road’ (1942), was a selection from a three-way cross between his own ‘Far West’ (1936), ‘Jean Cayeux’, and ‘Aztec Copper’. Despite winning one of only three-ever-awarded AIS Board of Director’s Medals and being one of the most important tall bearded irises of the 20th century, ‘Tobacco Road’ is impossibly rare in cultivation and perhaps even extinct.”

From “Brown” in The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair:

“[Brown] is not found in a rainbow or on a simple color wheel; making it requires darkening and graying down yellows, oranges, and some impure reds, or mixing together the three artists’ primaries — red, yellow, and blue. That there is no bright or luminous brown led to its being despised by both medieval artists and modernists. For medieval artists, who disliked mixing on principle and saw the glory of God reflected in the use of pure precious materials like ultramarine and gold, brown was inherently corrupt….

“Like some blacks, browns have long been used by artists for underdrawings and sketches. Bister, a dark but not particularly colorfast material, usually prepared from the tarry remains of burned beech wood, was popular. Other notable examples include the yellowy sienna from Italy and umber, which is darker and cooler. A blood-brown earth known as sinopia, after the port it came from, was beloved too….

“The artistic period most associated with browns, and which valued them most for their own sake, came after the first flush of the Renaissance. The principal figures in the works of artists like Correggio, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt stand out like bright islands in spaces full of capacious shadow. So much shadow demanded an extraordinary array of brown pigments — some translucent, others opaque; some warm, others cool — to prevent the works from looking featureless and flat. Anthony van Dyck, a Dutch artist active in the first half of the seventeenth century, was so skilled with one pigment — cassel earth, a kind of peat — that it later became known as ‘Vandyke brown.'”


There are few things in photography that I find as fascinating as studying color, and the irises I encounter on my trips to Oakland Cemetery’s Gardens give me access to a range of colors offered by no other flower. When I come home with several hundred new iris photos, I organize them by color and work on images with similar colors together — because, most likely, those groups were taken in the same area of the gardens and will have approximately the same lighting conditions in addition to their color tones.

Mostly, organizing iris photos this way is straightforward: one of each iris’s colors is often dominant (like orange, peach or pink, purple, white, yellow, or black) or the color differentiation between standards and falls is obvious (like the white and purple, or yellow and burgundy combinations, on a bicolor iris). But there are always some, like those in these photographs, that display such a wide range of colors throughout the flower that I set them aside from the rest. These blended colors are fascinating on their own, and Lightroom finds all the colors whose color channels the software supports in each of the flowers in the photos below: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta.

I included a quotation at the top of this post about brown irises, since about half of these — the ones after the double row of asterisks below — show distinct shades of brown (blending with orange or purple) in each flower’s crown. The others, at first glance, certainly don’t seem to be brown, having purple, pink, yellow, or orange shades instead — yet here are the web colors I extracted from those images using a utility I have called ColorSlurp:

When broken down this way, it’s easy to see why we may call irises like this brown, since so many of its constituent colors are shades of brown — with some sliding toward yellow, orange, or purple. In individual irises like these, you can see generations of breeding to produce new colors, with wild or native irises (typically purple, yellow, or white in color) bred to create complex tonal combinations. if you would like to see some similar irises — which may very well be related to these, given the historical relationships described above — click the links in the top quotation. I found all the irises mentioned at the Historic Iris Preservation Society web site.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Iris Blues

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

“Various cultivated forms of Iris pallida, including ‘Dalmatica’ and its nearly identical pretenders, grow over most of North America in gardens and cemeteries, around old abandoned buildings, along country roads, city streets, and major highways. In McLean, Virginia… one form decorates the pathways outside several banks and real estate offices. It seems to flourish with no dividing or other cultivation. These irises are a link to the past, a symbol of a time when a fragrant pastel violet iris with handsome foliage was the height of beauty….

“Almost all 19th-century garden irises were forms or hybrids of two European species:
Iris pallida and Iris variegata. The discovery of several natural tetraploid tall bearded irises in the latter decades of the 19th century, especially Iris trojana, Iris mesopotamica, Iris cypriana, and the cultivar known as ‘Amas’ (also known as Iris macrantha), made it possible for iris hybridizers to breed garden irises with double the diploid number of chromosomes. Almost all modern tall bearded irises are tetraploids, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes.”

From A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“Iris lovers heart blue. Actually, I think people heart blue. We’ve been long lost on a quest for true blue in nature, and when we do encounter it, it holds us in deep rapture. Fortunately for iris lovers that rapturous experience storms the garden each spring, laden with ruffles and sassy, audacious flowers….

“[Blue] covers a lot of ground, describing the world from the ocean to the sky. Color experts would distinguish true spectrum blue (105C on the RHS Colour Chart) from the violet-blue group of colors we register as wisteria blue, cornflower, bluebird, medium blue, and so on….

“The bearded iris world sports thousands of blue irises throughout the range just described, but spectrum blue bearded irises are inexplicably rare, with only one confirmed report in the Bulletin of the American Iris Society, from Virginia hybridizer Don Spoon, of its turning up in a seedling patch….”


Here we have a collection of similarly-colored irises, three different variants that were showing off their good-mood blues a couple of weeks ago at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. All of them would fall under the generic term “bearded iris” for obvious reasons (they have bitty beards!) but beyond that, I can more precisely identify only the first thirteen — as Iris pallida, which can also refer to other irises of varying appearance and color. I’ve previously photographed this iris along with Iris pallida variegata, and comparing the two made them easier to identify.

This particular iris pallida has flowers that are mostly pale (“pallida”) blue, and its leaves are green; Iris pallida variegata has flowers with the same structure but are more violet or purple than blue, and its distinctive bi-color leaves have a green and yellow (sometimes white) stripe. I realized when working on this set that I had not seen any Iris pallida variegata blooms this year, though had seen their unique leaves. On a trip back to the gardens this weekend, I hunted them down again and discovered that the plants produced plenty of leaves but no flowers (and there were no post-flowering empty stems) so I guess they’re taking a 2024 spring vacation.

Like the black irises I wrote about just last week (see Black Iris Variations and Observations) whose blue and purple colors could be flipped, the thirteen photos below could be rendered in either light blue or light purple; and, indeed, if you look at them on a device that has the ability to reduce blue light, you can see how they would look in the alternate color. But since Lightroom detects much more blue than purple in this case, I’ve adjusted them to look as I think someone would see them in “real life”: mostly blue, with touches of light purple that are more evident as you lean in (or the camera zooms in) to see greater detail and more variations in color. Still the extent of blue versus purple varies for each flower; and any of them may appear more blue or more purple depending on their actual colors, growing conditions, and lighting. To see some additional variations, try this image search for “blue iris pallida.”

The remaining flowers — especially the extra-fluffy, nearly translucent ones in the middle — registered very little purple, so they are, I think, closer to the true blue or “spectrum blue” mentioned in the second quotation at the top of this post. If you’d like to read more about the color blue in nature — and an explanation for its rarity relative to other colors — the article Why is the Color Blue so Rare in Nature? provides a good overview of blue’s distinguishing characteristics.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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!

Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (3 of 3)

From Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature by Alva Noe:

“Things show up for us as colorful and noisy. But this is all false appearance, a consequence of our particular makeup and local perspective. The qualities of objects we seem to see wouldn’t get cataloged in the final description of absolute reality. For they are merely effects, in our minds, of processes that are, in themselves, without color and without sound…. Everything we know in the world around us — from mountains to ice creams to sunsets to rose petals to the sun and the earth — is made up of physical parts that are made up in their turn of parts that are made up of still smaller parts. It’s pure matter… all the way down.”

From “The Act of Expression” in Art as Experience by John Dewey:

“[When] excitement about subject matter goes deep, it stirs up a store of attitudes and meanings derived from prior experience. As they are aroused into activity they become conscious thoughts and emotions, emotionalized images. To be set on fire by a thought or scene is to be inspired. What is kindled must either burn itself out, turning to ashes, or must press itself out in material that changes the latter… into a refined product….

[Elements] that issue from prior experience are stirred into action in fresh desires, impulsions and images. These proceed from the subconscious, not cold or in shapes that are identified with particulars of the past, not in chunks and lumps, but fused in the fire of internal commotion…. Through the interaction of the fuel with material already afire the refined and formed product comes into existence….”


This is the third of three posts — with images magically remanufactured as black-background variations — of Iris domestica photographs that I uploaded to Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (1 of 3) and Iris Domestica, the Leopard Flower or Blackberry Lily (2 of 3). Also, for extra fun, I made a collage of all twenty images and included that at the bottom of this post.

Of all of the photos I’ve converted to black backgrounds, these are the most complicated. As is implied by the quotation from Strange Tools above, Iris domestica is a fine example of something that seems to reveal smaller and smaller parts and pieces, the more you look at it. Here, for example, is one of the photos from my previous posts…

… where you would see the two flowers in the center as the subject of the photo, despite the presence of many other elements. This is correct of course, and I guided your eyes toward seeing the photo that way by Lightroom adjustments that created greater visual distinction between the subject and background, by dimming and softening the background so the pair of orange-and-spotted flowers became more prominent.

Converting a photo like this to one with a black background can be a challenge. Last year I did something similar — see Leopard Flower Variations (On Black) from September, 2022 — where I used Lightroom brushes to paint the backgrounds black, limiting myself mostly to the flower blossoms because brushing around the plants’ thin stems, leaves, and seedpods was too time-consuming. Shortly after that, Adobe introduced enhanced masking tools with the ability to select objects, subjects, and backgrounds, which I’ve been using as much as possible since they became available.

Updates to our post-processing tools serve us best when they open up new possibilities; and with these Lightroom masking enhancements, I’ve tried to take on more complicated variations. Instead of just brushing out the backgrounds around parts of an image as I did in the past, I can now use a combination of masks to get better results. With object selection, I can choose different parts of an image that I want to retain as the black-background version’s overall subject, then invert all those selections, then change the background to black.

Here, for example, is an interim step in this approach. I selected parts of the image as individual objects in a single mask one at a time — the flower petals, the seedpods, and the stems — then inverted the mask (shown in dark green). Lightroom’s object selection got a lot right; but as you can see — look to the right of the flower — some of the stems appear disconnected from the rest. This happens when selected objects are close in color to the background colors, and will also happen where there are similarities in sharpness or contrast between foreground and background.

If I stopped here and converted the background to black, the gaps in the stems would be apparent, as you can see here…

… or, up closer, here:

I often compare the next steps (in my own head, at least) to painting different colors on walls and window trim, where you have to pay attention to the boundaries between two objects (the wall and the window frame) and two colors. If you slip with the paintbrush and one color intrudes onto the other, corrective action (!!) is warranted, along with, perhaps, a bit of cussing and extra bits of patience. But you have to fix it because you know it won’t look right if you don’t.

When adjusting masks that have started out coarse as shown above, I’ve learned that I need to remember that elements of any image tend to be brighter where they’re closer to the camera (or to the eye), and darker toward the back. This light-to-dark, front-to-back brightness variation is one of the ways that we perceive two-dimensional images as having depth, and it applies to even the smallest details. In Lightroom, the masks appear to become “fuzzier” when they partially cover darker, toward-the-back elements. If I adjust the masks too much, I lose the front-to-back appearance of depth and leave the image looking flat — and something as small and thin as a flower’s stem would look like a two-dimensional geometric line, instead of a living portion of a plant. At the same time, I have to deal with an illusion: the more I zoom into a photo, the more tiny pixels appear to need adjustments. It took some practice to keep in mind that front/light-to-back/dark contrast helps us perceive something as “real” and avoid adjusting the masks more than I should.

Since I have to pay close attention while working on the masks, I’ve noticed how familiar I become with the subjects of the photos and all their details. For most of my photos, this means that — even if it’s unintentional — I’m constantly observing the structures of plants and their flowers. This in turn helps me shoot with different expectations about what I see, what I can show, and what level of focus or what kind of light I need, especially if the photos might end out with black backgrounds. This is another valuable characteristic of the software tools we use: they not only offer expanded possibilities, but they help us see something we might overlook, as we envision different ways of taking photographs and enhancing them.

Here you see the corrected mask — where the stems (just to the right of the flower) are no longer disconnected from the rest of the plant. I used a “subtract brush” to erase the black background from areas where it intruded on the plant’s stems.

Now I can turn the mask overlay off, and I’ve got a completed black background. Select the first image below if you’d like to see a larger version, and I’ve included the original starting point for this image for comparison.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!