The story behind Todd Eberle’s Flowers (For Richard) is an incredible one: having been with his partner, former art director of Paper Magazine, Richard Pandiscio since 1987 when they met on Eberle’s first photo assignment for the magazine, the couple have built a life together that includes a property in West Cornwall, Connecticut. And it was when Pandiscio started creating the gardens on the land of this property, which they bought in 2001, that he began bringing Eberle flowers daily igniting the photographer’s passion for eternalizing them.
We met up with Vanity Fair’s photographer-at-large to discuss flowers and everything they signify to the accomplished artist.
Lars Byrresen Petersen: Flowers (for Richard) seems to tell a very intimate story. How is this portrayed in the actual photos?
Todd Eberle: Eneas, the curator and gallerist of the National Exemplar actually came up with the idea after he told the great artist Keith Sonnier who works with the story about Rich and me. I’ve been with Rich for 27 years, and when Eneas proposed the title for the show, it made me understand that my making the Flower Rorscachs is about our relationship. Eneas also had the idea to make them as large as possible, which I did for Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in her loft in NYC, and for Alan Faena from flowers I made in his incredible garden when Richard was branding his gargantuan Miami project in Punta del Este. I have the way I do it down to a science, and love doing commissioned works with people’s personal flowers. Alan even created a “Faena Rose,” which is what Gloria and he have. The image of the flowers against the blue sky was taken in Punta del Este, which was a huge departure from making them in our living room always photographed with a white wall as the background. We decided to make them unique works, and the scale of 6×8’ make them analogous to “paintings”.
LBP: What do flowers signify to you?
TE: Other than the fact that Richard is the gardener, and I don’t like to garden, I love when he brings them in. He will disappear for hours on end in the gardens he created. My Grandmother, Faith Swanson was an avid gardener, and I grew up with her beautiful garden. I used to photograph quite a lot for Martha Stewart Living (including many flowers, even though there’s no reference for them in this work as I didn’t put them together save for a few graphic still lives), and my first shoot for them was to make Martha’s portrait. I told her that it was my Grandmother’s book, “Herb Garden Design” that Martha cited in her book, “Gardening” that if she ever did a book about herb gardens, it would be that book. Martha wanted to meet her, and we flew to Cleveland so they could meet, I think around 1991. She was so much like a predecessor to Martha Stewart — she was totally self-taught, and made watercolors of flowers, sewed all her own clothes (and had 15 sewing machines), including bras and underwear, was a draftswoman, silversmith, and made the most beautiful 20×24’ wall-to-wall carpet she braided from winter coats when I was 8 or so. We now have that carpet in our house in Connecticut after she died at 98. Rich also has a section in the garden of clippings from her garden, so it’s very sweet when he tells me those flowers come from her. There’s a whole section of the Martha/Faith story in my book Rizzoli published in 2011, “Empire of Space”. One of Faith’s garden 20 years apart: when Martha came to visit, when it was at its absolute best, and what it looked like when she had lost her sight and could no longer tend to the garden. The following spread is of Martha’s portrait I made for Vanity Fair celebrating her becoming the first self-made billionaire when her company went public. It’s opposite the portrait I made of her in the same office after she released from prison. The World Trade Towers are in one photograph, as are her two beloved chow dogs. They do not appear in the other, so in a sense, my Flower images are about freezing time, as we are always aware it’s fleeting. My obsession with symmetry and bringing geometry to the messiness of nature is something I find very satisfying visually. When I take the initial photograph, I have no idea whatsoever how they will look, so every one is a complete surprise.
LBP: Did they have the same significance before you met Richard?
TE: I would say they have considerably more significance.
LBP: Have the daily bouquets contributed to your relationship lasting for more than 25 years?
TE: Rich bringing me the bouquets every morning in bed is a little editorializing Eneas did (although it does happen, but not daily!), but Rich will fill many containers in a day in the summer. I also do go out in the garden to photograph it over the summer, and will pick and cut branches, weeds, and flowers myself now and then. No plant is off limits except for the poisonous ones. Rhubarb, I’ve discovered is lethal. I cut and rearrange and hang some upside down to make the frame more complex, but start with many and then reduce them. There’s an aspect of “performance” when I make them, as I don’t make “pretty flower arrangements” like you’d find in a decorating magazine.
LBP: Does he bring you flowers every day, even when he’s upset with you–or does he then bring you the less pretty ones?
TE: He never gets upset with me! Well, he did more than a little when I posted the portrait of him on Instagram, as he’s not fond of “social media” exposure. At all. The portrait got more “likes” than anything I had posted in my two months of “Instagramming”.
LBP: On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the most important), how would you rate the importance of flowers in romantic partnerships?
TE: 10. Who doesn’t love to give or get flowers?
LBP: What are your favorite flowers?
TE: All of them. Especially when they fade, which is what I’m making photographs off now. I’ve been making these photographs for 8 years now, and the first one I made was in autumn with some shriveled up flowers that had turned sad and lifeless. I went to the computer and still don’t recall what made me do a Rorscach, but Rich saw it on the screen and said “What is that??!” When I told him it was the shriveled up stuff in the vase, he was astonished. I then did about 20 that night and sent them to Olivier Renaud-Clement who was responsible for starting my gallery career with the show I did with Robert Polidori at Robert Miller Gallery on 57th Street in 1999 called “2 Visions: Brasilia”. His response to them was “What the fuck did you just send me?!” He then showed them to his friend, Jacques Grange, the most famous of interior designer who ended up buying hundreds of them for the Mark Hotel. So if you stay there, there’s one of my Flower Rorscachs over the bed. That relationship grew even deeper, as Richard branded the hotel, so that was a sweet extension of everything.
LBP: Your least favorite?
TE: I can’t think of any. I also don’t know the names of most of them. They seem like paints from an art supply store to me.
LBP: How do you think flowers have contributed to photography through its existence and will they ever go out of fashion?
TE: Irving Penn’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs were always a big influence, and of course, Andy Warhol’s “Flowers” paintings are as iconic an image as it gets, so my photographs are an homage to Andy’s “Flowers” and “Rorschach” paintings. I even did a little book a few years back with a Japanese gallerist I worked with who asked me for an idea. The book is called “Flowers,” and I paired images with drag queens I photographed on one night in Dallas at the “Roundup,” a gay bar. By chance, that night was the “Miss Gay U.S. of A. Pageant,” and I’ve always had an obsession with photographing drag queens going back to the Pyramid club on Avenue A when I first came to NY in 1985. Every Sunday was a night called “Whispers” that is now legendary. Hapi Phace hosted the drag cabaret with appearances by Tabboo!!, The “Lady” Bunny, “Ming Vauze” (aka Benjamin Liu who was Andy’s assistant), and Sister Dimension. They were the subject of some of the first photographs I made after getting kicked out of Cooper Union. The result of that book, “Flowers”, took my Andy homage even further, adding his amazing “Ladies and Gentlemen” series to the mix.