Whanganui National Park
Whanganui river
Florachromes at Huis Marseille Museum of Photography Amsterdam

Photo documentation by Eddo Hartmann


The river

The river links the sky to the sea in the ongoing water cycle that makes life on earth possible. No matter the location, every river on earth is imbued with stories and mythes, bearing life and death in its waters. Forever moving and changing it makes its way to the lowest point; just as a plant reaches to the sun, the river runs to the sea.



A basic element of our work is the search for a universal language using colour. Colour is one of the purest and most primitive forms of 

communication. It signals danger with the yellow and black body of a wasp, while pretty pink flowers invite pollination. We've come to associate particular colours with emotions, they trigger psychological responses, though the sensations they induce are subjective and often culturally determined. In our work we make colours using the pigments in plants which are molecules of the secondary metabolites. These serve important and highly specialized functions in the plants' adaptation to their environment. For instance anthocyanins, responsible for the colours of petals, are an aid to pollination. Flavonoids help protect plants from ultraviolet radiation, and the colourant present in the roots of some plants such as dock and sorrel (Rumex) enable the plant to grow in soils contaminated by heavy metals. Biochemistry, one of the primary languages by which plants interact with their surroundings, gives us visual information through the different shades of colour they produce depending on the soil’s composition.


In order to produce our works we apply analogical photography in its most basic form. We study nature with natural physical and chemical processes. Specifically we extract the natural dye from small samples of plant material and transfer this as a "residue" onto clear photographic film from which we make a large format negative. This we then print on photographic paper. Using this technique we make colour maps of specific environments with the intention that they tell their own bio-chromatic story about the infinite diversity their colour signature represents. We explore the balance between artistic concept and craftsmanship, not so much to generate an insight, but rather to cultivate the skill of discerning the narrative already present and revealed by our method. Our work is essentially about beauty, simplicity, sensitivity and subtlety of natural logic.


Our relationship to nature involves a connection to place. As a descendant of the Ngati Pamoana Hapu of the Te Ati Haunuia paparangi Iwi Peter Svenson has a deep connection with the Whanganui River. In February 2017 we made a short trip to the region near Pipiriki on the Whanganui River and with permission from the Department of Conservation and the local Iwi took samples of indigenous plant and fern species around the tributaries of the Whanganui River along the road from Pipiriki to Raetihi. The results were dramatic and surprising.

The indigenous species had far more texture than the European plants we have been sampling over the last few years. Also the colours appeared much earthier than from European samples. We have not gathered enough material to draw conclusions and intend to return to the Whanganui River region to both extend our study of the indigenous flora and examine in conjunction with the local Iwi traditional methods of dye extraction, which we will apply to our work. The completed work will take the form of large format photographic prints accentuating the texture and nuance of the colour dyes gained from the native flora.


As a longer term project we intend to make a colour sample of every species (and subspecies) of New Zealand native fern. We are inspired by the work of H. B. Dobbie and his book 'New Zealand Native ferns'. Not only because they are rich in form and numerous, but also because ferns are a very ancient family of plants. Early fern fossils predate the beginning of the Mesozoic Era, 360 million years ago, two hundred million years before the flowering plants evolved.  Ferns also play an important role in the mythology of New Zealand. Maori use the shape of the Silver fern frond (Koru) as a symbol representing new life, growth, strength and peace. It conveys the idea of perpetual movement while the inner coil suggests a return to the point of origin. In New Zealand's native vegetation ferns are the pre-dominant feature. The land provides their most important environmental requirement, moisture, not only moisture that allows the plant to live where it does, but moisture that allows it to reproduce. Unlike the other vascular plants, the flowering plants and conifers, ferns reproduce from spores and an intermediate plant stage called a gametophyte. That is why they favour sheltered areas under the forest canopy, along creeks and streams and other sources of permanent moisture. The spores are tiny, hardly visible, dust particles, that grow under the fronds, the leafy branches of the fern. Fronds with spores are called fertile fronds. These spores give the dye a deeper layer that is not visible to the naked eye. They remain intact during the preparation of the dye and give it a unique structure. Due to our photographic approach the spores become a visible textual element of the dye, unfolding an otherwise imperceptible micro universe. Their mostly green leaves often give a erubescent dye from deep red-brown to bright orange shades, but we have also discovered a fawn brown grey, ochre and greenish fern colour. Our goal is to reproduce the work of H. B. Dobbie as a colour representation of the ferns he documented, and produce a wall of colours consisting of plus minus 150 photographs of the "Native Fern Residues".


Our fascination for an intiutive research into the relationship between humans and nature is based on observing nature in general and plants in particular. There is a division in biology that allows zoologists to use anthropomorphic terms, but denies the privilege to botanists. A small band of interpid researchers is crusading against the "cerebrocentric" view that permits behaviour only to organisms with brains. The idea that plants are 'smarter' than their immobility suggests is now supported by rigorous experimentation and fieldwork which are uncovering the genes and chemicals that mediate plants’ environmental intelligence. There is a growing awareness that much of a plant's rich behavioural repertoire is hard to observe because it is played out in a chemical arena. A scientific, philosophical and social political bias for plants calls for a new approach that provokes the implicit attitude and automatic stereotypes and presents a new perspective regarding plant life as well as human beings. Compared to science and philosophy, literature is more inclusive of the plant world, although the plant is often presented as part of the landscape or the backdrop where in human beings are represented. Clear examples are mythology, fairy tales and fables. For many writers plants are used as an allegory for human emotion, revealing pleasures and displeasures, stimulating memories, reflecting the human psyche, inner stirring and contemplation. It remains a reductive, utilitarian and anthropocentric view of plants. Even the "Rhizome thinking", very influential in literature and cultural studies, applies the material and relational existence of actual rootstocks as an ideological instrument of a presumably interconnected form of human being. The fact that the Whanganui River has gained world

renown by being the first non-biological entity in the world togain legal rights (agreement signed August 30th  2012) is obviously of special interest to us, and supportive of the philosophy behind our work. From an eco-ethical point of view, a biocentric form of critique seriously considers life in relation to humans in terms that go beyond pure symbolic or correlative dimensions. We want to expose something of the huge diversity within the plant world by developing an apparently simple colour matrix. In the gathering, determination and processing of material we are confronted with an intense communication with the plant world. We feel as if we are at the primary stage of uncovering a new language written in an infinite variation of colour nunace. A poly-semiotic code of interspecies visual poetry.

© arja hop / peter svenson 2013