At his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, Sam Stapleton reaches into the freezer and pulls out a piece of Pyrex. He bypasses the oven and heads toward a spot near the kitchen’s bay window, where he sets the baking dish atop a photography light box before stepping away to await the first signs of a thaw.
This is no casserole intended for the evening’s dinner, but instead several inches of ice that, as it melts, will reveal and unfurl an iris, a morning glory, or whatever flower Stapleton has selected, prepped, and frozen for today’s endeavor. He picks up his camera and starts to shoot, first framing the flower as a portrait before zooming in to find compositions and details of interest. Those could be the curve of a stem, bubbles or fissures in the ice, graphic lines in a leaf’s veins, or the way a petal’s color bleeds into the water.
“I see things I’d never notice by looking at a flower from a distance. It’s a level of beauty I wasn’t aware of before.” — Sam Stapleton
For many years, Stapleton says, he was “deaf to the story of flowers,” but one could conclude there’s always been something in the water that inspired his artistic leanings. While he was growing up in Kingsport, Tennessee, Stapleton’s father worked at the chemical company Tennessee Eastman, a division of photography behemoth Eastman Kodak. He remembers tagging along on occasion to one of the employee darkrooms to develop film with his dad. “I can’t say I found the experience particularly fascinating, but I’m sure the early exposure influenced me on some level,” he says.
Although it would be a long time before he pursued photography as fine art, cameras became frequent companions along his journey through life’s stages. In his 20s, that often entailed taking a 35 mm Pentax to hard-rock concerts such as KISS, Alice Cooper, and ZZ Top, where “the big hair and colored lights produced some pretty energetic effects,” he says, with a laugh. After settling down in his 30s, he and his wife, freelance writer Patricia Hudson, collaborated on architecture and landscape stories, traveling on assignment for books and magazines until he mostly put photography aside for a couple of decades—with the exception of a family portrait now and then—to focus on a job in healthcare finance and raising the couple’s two daughters.
Once retirement loomed and the children left the nest, Stapleton found he had both the longing and the time to rekindle his photographic passion. He started to look more closely at what had been in front of him all along—flowers like the ones in his own yard—with a fresh perspective. As he tested various techniques, including backlighting blooms at night with a flashlight beam, the idea of bringing them inside to photograph through layers of ice popped into his head, and he set about refining both his process and his vision.
“I wish I were a better flower arranger, but I approach them the way I do a landscape, which is to wander slowly and discover a composition already there that most people would look past.” — Sam Stapleton
Even now, after a number of successful exhibitions and a recently published book of his images (Stilled Life, Bloodroot Mountain Press, 2018), the photographer continues to tweak his method. Although the subject matter may be much quieter than the heavy-metal ones of his youth, Stapleton’s eyes and ears have opened wide to flowers, as he takes what by nature is ephemeral and freezes a moment in time, telling its mesmerizing story through his lens.
By Karen Carroll | Photography by Sam Stapleton