This story appears in the February 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Instead of giving his wife flowers for her birthday, as he did most years, contemporary photographer Abelardo Morell decided to choose something that would last longer. Say, a photograph of flowers.
The Cuban-born, Boston-based photographer started with a still life of a mixed bouquet. He took a photo, then rearranged the flowers and took another photo. He repeated that 20 times, then layered the images together.
Still lifes of flowers are a classic subject for photographers. But Morell is well-known for another distinctive photographic approach: camera obscura, a technique that captures inverted views projected through a pinhole onto a surface in a darkened room. So he saw this very different pursuit, a project he called Flowers for Lisa, as a chance to stretch his creativity as well as to devise gifts for his wife, Lisa McElaney.
Morell also saw the flowers project as a way to pay homage to his favorite creative artists. He used flowers and petals to craft surreal designs of people and places, and to celebrate the work of Claude Monet, Georges Braque—even the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Each image inspired another. As Morell recounts it: “I kept thinking, if I can make this, I can make one more.” After four years, he ended the series in 2017 with 76 images united by their floral medium but branching apart with wild offshoots of originality.
The bouquets turned to mulch long ago, but the images live on in Flowers for Lisa: A Delirium of Photographic Invention, the 2018 book that chronicles the project. In the book’s afterword, McElaney describes the distinction between her appreciation of the images and Morell’s. “I see them as keepsakes, proof positive that what connects us is real,” she writes. “Abe treats them as tools for tending the fields of love and commitment.”