Every once in a while, something happens that makes you stop and think.
Sometimes those moments are filled with sadness and grief.
Sometimes they are filled with such happiness that tears of joy can come back years later at the mere thought of that moment in time.
As a wedding photographer in and around New York City, those moments abound for me. The sense of enchantment that surrounds all of the events of a wedding day. The intimacy of a first kiss, even when it happens in front of hundreds of your closest friends and family.
Those moments are valid justifications to follow a passion in life. For me, they played a huge part in leading me to become a wedding photographer back in 2001.
On November 12, 2014, a special ”every once in a while” moment happened to me that came from a most unusual place.
Upon checking local news near my hometown, I came across a news article about a rare species of plant that was about to bloom at Cornell University. With my interest sparked, I began researching everything I could about Amorphophallus titanium, the Titan arum. I was drawn to online data that showed the plant was growing at an astounding speed. (In fact, between October 23 and November 19 when it began to bloom, the plant grew an amazing 55.6 inches in height.) In addition, the plant would emit a foul odor reminiscent of rotting meat that has earned it the nickname of the “Corpse Plant.” It was the largest flowering plant on the planet, endemic to Sumatra, and is found in a quickly disappearing habitat that threatens its existence.
This research piqued my interest and I knew that this was an opportunity for me to do something.
What that something was, I really had no idea.
Research into the plant also taught me that the plant known affectionately as “Wee Stinky” would only be in bloom for around 48 hours.
Time was of the essence.
Now came the hard part.
What exactly was I going to do? On top of that, how exactly was I going to go about doing it?
On the morning of November 13th, I figured the first part out.
I was going to do what I could to take a “portrait” of Wee Stinky when it bloomed. It was a logical choice. In my research, there were portraits that showed Titan arum plants in greenhouses. There were images that even showed them in their native habitat, including video footage of famed BBC narrator David Attenborough from his Botany series. However, there were no images that I could locate which showed a portrait of the plant like I had envisioned.
After running into some roadblocks and quickly running out of time, a light bulb went off! I used to work as a freelance photographer at the University of Denver. Thinking of how I landed that job, I knew I needed to reach out to the Media Relations Department at Cornell and share my idea. Through that initial contact, I was fortunate and was put in touch with the right people to make things work.
Now came the hard part.
To pull this image off and bring my concept to a reality, it would need to be taken in the greenhouse without moving the plant.
Of course there were obstacles. You know, the usual obstacles that every photographer runs into. Reflective surfaces everywhere due to it being in a greenhouse. A 24-hour live feed of the plant blooming. The dangling collection tubes used to contain and analyze the noxious gases being released by the plant.
Noxious gases? Oh yes!
And then there’s the fact that the last time “Wee Stinky” bloomed, in 2012, nearly 10,000 people visited the plant in a 48 hour timespan, while some 500,000 checked in online.
This was going to be a HUGE deal and I had to nail it!
Around 7pm on November 19, 2014 a phone call I had been hoping for came with an Ithaca area code. Could this be it?
“Kevin. The Titan arum has begun to bloom. Can you make it up here tonight?”
Absolutely! It was time to harness my inner-Wolowitz!
Around 8pm, I was loaded up and in my vehicle with a fellow Science Geek and a Photo Buddy. The three of us were headed to Cornell for a chance of a lifetime, uncertain of what to expect and jumping with excitement!
The images below show two of the portraits that I captured of “Wee Stinky” on the night of November 19, 2014. The first was taken as my interpretation of an environmental portrait showing the growing conditions in its greenhouse at Cornell. The second was what I had envisioned when I began this journey. A low-key portrait of Cornell’s Titan arum. It was lit using three Profoto B1 strobes and three reflectors.
Shortly after we left Cornell, around 4am on November 20, 2014, the news came that the Spadix of the plant had begun to collapse. The blooming event was already beginning past its peak, having peaked well past visiting hours.
Please click here to view the live cam feed at Cornell University, as well as for the latest news and information on the November blooming of “Wee Stinky.”
To learn more about the species Amorphophallus titanium, please visit this Cornell University page.
Although this species of plant is not yet endangered, it is listed as a vulnerable species. With that in mind, the images needed to be shot with a photojournalistic standard in mind. No photoshop tricks here. What is captured in the image cannot be altered much in post-production when being used for editorial purposes, techniques that are often not used with the editing of wedding imagery and portraiture.