Amy Lamb's art blends scientific precision with beauty
Amy Lamb, in her studio with a Christmas cactus in bloom. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / April 7, 2004)
Lamb, a former molecular biologist who took up photography 10 years ago after raising her children and seeing them off to college, had been carefully nurturing her Schlumbergera for months under the 1,000-watt lamp in her basement, where she grows most of the plants that appear in her photographs.
"I photograph a flower as one would create a portrait, to try to capture its essence," Lamb says. "What is it that is unique about this tulip, this dahlia, this fern or this rose? I often print my images very large to allow the viewer to delve into the visual 'soul' of the flower."
For Lamb, 59, capturing the soul, as well as the beauty, of flowers is a passion, a vocation that combines the truths of both art and science. Over the years, she has produced hundreds of precisely detailed images printed digitally on rich watercolor paper or by hand on sepia-toned platinum emulsions. Her work has been published in magazines and exhibited in museums and galleries across the country. (Her current show, at Steven Scott Gallery in Owings Mills, runs through July 3.)
She's also collaborated with the horticulture department at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, home to one of the world's most comprehensive collections of flora. In 2002, her photographs were featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.
"Her work isn't just blowing stuff up, it's perfectly lit and it's taken with the eye of a scientist," said Tom Mirenda, a Smithsonian horticulturist who cares for the institution's collection of more than 10,000 orchids.
"Her photographs elevate botanical illustration to an art form. They're so full of wonder, but at the same time they show all the structural details and the miracle each individual flower is."
Lamb's meticulous attention to detail comes partly from her scientist's training and knowledge of biological structure. But it also springs from her personal understanding of 'perfection' as a functional necessity, the result of millions of years of evolution, without which plants -- like people -- could never have acquired their ability to flower and reproduce.
"She is very much a perfectionist and the work she turns out shows it," said Susan Hamilton, curator of a 2003 exhibition of digital art at the Academy Art Museum in Easton that included Lamb's photographs. "She brings to it not only a wonderfully keen aesthetic eye, but her knowledge as a scientist and botanist and the passion of a person who loves flowers. It's really a very special combination."
In Lamb's photographs, flowers take on the character not just of plants, but of unique personalities. Like the pioneering artist-photographers Imogene Cunningham and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose stark and elegant images of botanical subjects celebrated the mysterious life force that animates all things, Lamb is a poet of nature's cosmic harmonies who finds a "remarkable consistency" in the plant world that's mirrored throughout the universe.
"Spirals are a good example," Lamb says. "You see a lot of them, from the subatomic realm of particles to the largest structures in the universe -- from the double helix of DNA to the spiral of the calla lily, the wheeling rotation of weather patterns to the spiral arms of galaxies.
"That says to me there is a consistency of certain forms throughout the universe, that we're all similar in some respects, that there's a harmony in our existence," Lamb says.
Nor is nature's symmetry an accident, Lamb insists. "The environment may have certain laws about how we form, but then there's this other, unexplained factor."
"To me, [my photography] mixes philosophy, religion and science, and it all kind of works together. It's something I'm always in touch with. You see these familiar forms repeat themselves over and over and know that you're part of something much bigger."
Lamb grew up in Birmingham, Mich., the youngest of two daughters of an engineer father and a stay-at-home mother who loved literature and art. Science ran in the family; her grandfather and several relatives were physicians.
"I loved science from the time I was a kid playing with chemistry sets," Lamb recalls. "I made all sorts of experiments. My father built a flower press and we picked flowers and pressed them. I was always digging for rocks. And my mother would ask her friends who were artists to give classes in our home because she was so interested in what they did. So I was pretty passionate about it all and always expressed myself in visual terms; it's the easiest way for me to communicate."
The budding scientist attended high school at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, outside Detroit, which shares its campus with a renowned science institute, art academy and museum. She went on to earn bachelor's and Ph.D. degrees in biology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her research involved protein production in cells.
Planning on a career in basic research, Lamb spent several years as a postdoctoral fellow, first at the Basel Institute for Immunology in Basel, Switzerland, then at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, where she met her husband, Robert, on the NIH softball team.