Finding unexpected resonance in everyday objects, London-based photographer Polly Brown reveals the humanity and hidden grace behind some of the world’s most iconic brands through her quietly potent images.
Brown’s ongoing photographic series, PLANTS, throws a spotlight on our commonly overlooked vegetal friends. By focusing on humble foliage within influential corporate headquarters around the world, Brown underlines the innate human need for nature while reinterpreting the perceived identities of otherwise inaccessible brands. “Tommy Hilfiger suddenly becomes a cactus,” explains Brown, “Vivienne Westwood a splayed palm, HBO a white orchid.”
As she prepares to launch PLANTS – the book – in both New York and London this June, alongside an accompanying exhibition of the series, the magnetic Polly Brown discussed the inherent power and poise of pot-plants with Indigo Clarke.
There’s something so simple and beautiful about your interest in humble office plants as subjects – where did it begin?
Polly Brown: I've always been drawn to the relationship between man and nature. I'm interested in the way we attempt to create and recreate interactions with nature, even in an increasingly unnatural environment. By focusing on natural elements within companies, my project PLANTS reflects on ideas of brand identity and corporate planting, but also, the growth and desire for environmentalism. In effect, a universal desire to reconnect to something natural within a man-made environment.
When did you begin your PLANTS project?
Brown: It was originally conceived for a show at Ronnie Woods London Gallery two years ago. It started with 12 portraits of office plants in fashion houses HQ's, and has continued to grow and build consistently from there –it’s almost an obsession. I want to collect them all. By focusing intensely on objects easily taken for granted or overlooked entirely, have you discovered anything unexpected?
Brown: Initially I focused on plants as I wanted to capture the day-to-day functioning of big brands and invert their identities to draw attention to the ‘living’ aspect of a company, rather than the machine behind the logo. This involves hundreds and thousands of employees, connections, deals, networks, chains of command and human interaction, in many ways the structure of companies are very similar to those found in nature. In contrast to the whirring hum of the computers that surround them, these plants always struck me as possessing a sense of base honesty which, at the core of a world filled with branding and logos, I find has a telling simplicity. I hope people find it as fascinating as I have, I find it so interesting to see the varying ways we include nature in our man-made lives. Many of the plants I’ve photographed were keenly tended to, some were corporate, some were personal, some were named, some had been there for years or mere months, but all were being adamantly cared for and kept alive.
Have you always had a love of photography?
Brown: I’ve always been obsessed with imagery: how it reads, how you can convey emotion, concept, narrative, philosophy through a simple image or a series of images. I like how something static can expand and lead you to a much larger idea. I have always used photography within my work, as a kid I would hoard photography books from the school library. I found something I could escape into. I have an eclectic mix of inspirations that range form Airports to Plants, to Hotels, to Skin and Textures. I often like photographing inanimate objects or transient places – for me they often end up reflecting and symbolising humanity, though they may appear to present the opposite.
You focus on the seemingly invisible human details within an industry famed for its glossy veneer – was this inspired by your background working behind-the-scenes in fashion?
Brown: Working in fashion alongside art school for many years definitely gave me an insight into the internal workings of major fashion houses and brands, and I was fascinated by the everyday function of these iconic companies and the human process behind them. Fashion has inspired this project, but not really my overall work. I tend not to take pictures of people that much, and if I do it’s usually very close-up – like the side of an ear or a corner of a knee. I like a feeling of intimacy in my photos – a closeness to the subject, which is not often prevalent in fashion.
There is an indefinable Grace to your PLANTS images…
Brown: I often feel there is a stillness and sense of quiet to my pictures. I tend to take photographs of things others might look over. I think there is a silent grace in these objects, when picked out from the bustle of everyday they have an effortless beauty. The plants in this project are often ignored as part of the background of everyday office life – small natural elements in a largely artificial environment. However, despite their smallness and supposed inconspicuousness I feel they have a much deeper resonance. I feel in their quiet way they contain a sense of expansiveness, they speak to a desire in all of us to be connected to nature. I love how something small can make you think of something big, much bigger than yourself. In that sense, I feel pot-plants also contain a humbling grace.