“His images were illustrated with the purpose of replicating the botanic subject as close to reality as possible. I’m more interested in doing the exact opposite with photography," says Kenji Toma of his contemporary spin on a classic book of botanical illustrations
“I am just obsessed by the beauty of botanical drawings,” says Kenji Toma, describing his new book, The Most Beautiful Flowers. It’s a homage to Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s celebrated book of watercolours, Choix des plus belles fleurs [The most beautiful flowers], which was first published in France back in 1827 – long before colour photography was available.
“His images were illustrated with the purpose of replicating the botanic subject as close to reality as possible,” says Toma. “I’m more interested in doing the exact opposite with photography.”
His series shows hyperreal, unrealistically perfect images of flowers, each shot with the same lens, angle, and lighting, and delicately arranged with pins and armature wire. Going one step further than nature, they put a contemporary spin on the concept of the botanical encyclopaedia.
Originally from northern Japan, Toma left his hometown when he was 18 to work as a studio assistant in Tokyo for two years; he then studied under three commercial photographers before eventually going freelance. In 1987, while visiting New York on holiday, he took his portfolio to Andy Warhol’s The Factory, and impressed the then-editor of Interview Magazine so much that he got a 10-page spread in the publication.
It was a turning point, which allowed Toma to move to New York and kick off a prolific career as a still life photographer. He now works with advertising clients such as Chanel, Dior, DKNY, Jill Sander, and Marc Jacobs, and with editorial titles such as New York Times Magazine, Vogue, W, and Wallpaper. The Most Beautiful Flowers is his first book, however, published by photobook specialists Kehrer Verlag.
“I was completely captivated by Redouté’s flowers,” says Toma, “I wondered what was happening in his brain, and what he felt when he was creating these drawings. I wanted to trace his path by creating a similar style of visuals using photography.”
The book has just been published, but the series is still ongoing and Toma says he’s still inspired by botany in his personal work. “The subject of flowers and plants are now becoming my lifework,” he says.