Petal Pusher

A podiatrist photographs some of the world’s most endangered flowers with remarkable precision and artistry, hoping to raise the plants’ profiles before it’s too late. 

For the first time in nearly 70 years, an Amorphophallus titanum, dubbed the “corpse flower” for the stench of decay it gives off, was in bloom in New York, and Jonathan Singer had only five minutes to photograph it. In an exclusive viewing room at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden that had been cleared of excited crowds for the brief shoot sat the Sumatran plant, which consists of a single leaf that can be 10 feet across and a phallic flowering structure that can rise 10 feet high. While botanists held pieces of cardboard up to the windows to block harsh rays of light seeping in, Singer instructed his assistant to hold up a black cloth backdrop. He snapped one picture. Perfect.

That photograph is the first in Singer’s tome, Botanica Magnifica, a collection of 250 images, mostly endangered tropical flowers. The first set of the five-volume work occupies a place of honor in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. With his shoulder-length gray hair, thick black-rimmed Versace glasses with gold detailing, and penchant for draping his six-foot-plus frame in unusual clothing (like flowing shirts and designer pajama pants), the 60-year-old Singer looks much more an artist than a podiatrist—his profession for the past 30 years. “I loved taking pictures from a young age,” he says. “I had to have every new Polaroid that came out.”

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

He studied photography in college and trained under the painter Ilya Bolotowsky. “But my mother wanted me to be a doctor,” says Singer, so he went to medical school. He returned to photography when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago and after he stopped performing surgery. Armed with a Hasselblad digital camera, he’s invented a new way of photographing flowers that reveals the plant form, color, and texture in remarkable detail. In a light that evokes the paintings of Dutch masters, the flowers seem to be emerging out of darkness.

Singer began by photographing the flowers he found most compositionally interesting. Then, a few years ago, he bought three orchids at a New Jersey nursery, shot them at home, and returned the next day, images in hand. Marc Hachadourian, the New York Botanical Garden’s curator of Glasshouse Collections, happened to see them. Captivated, he hunted down exotic orchids for Singer, who shot them using his unique rapid-fire approach—taking two or three minutes to set up before snapping one picture per plant. After building up his portfolio, Singer showed it to John Kress, a scientist and curator of botany at the Smithsonian. In an unprecedented move, Kress gave Singer access to the institution’s research greenhouse, home to some of the world’s rarest plants.

With Kress as a guide, Singer began shooting the greenhouse’s extremely rare and endangered flowers, some of which no longer live in the wild. “I marry art and science,” says Singer. “People are mesmerized by these photographs, and because of that they want to know the science. People ask me, ‘Wow, what’s the name of that flower? Where do you find it?’ ”

Botanica, which weighs 35 pounds, was printed with handmade ink on handmade paper measuring about 26.5 inches by 39.5 inches. The price tag: $2.5 million—though you won’t need a hand truck or a trust fund to buy the $185, 12-inch-by-15-inch version Abbeville Press is publishing this fall. Using the rare double-elephant dimension for the original was deliberate. Singer aimed to emulate the best-known picture book of this size—John James Audubon’s Birds of America. “Audubon knew birds,” says Singer. “I am not the Audubon of the 21st century in botany because I’m not botanically trained.” Yet he seeks to leave a conservation legacy, doing for plants what Audubon did for birds. “We have to stop the destruction of ecosystems before there is nothing more to see.”