Look at the closest light source. Shut your eyes, focus for a moment on the dawn hue of your lids. This may have been what you saw as you emerged from your mother.
The orange-pink rose on the cover of new photobook Portraits Nudes Flowers by Mariano Vivanco was inspired by this charged glow. A flower evoking childbirth may seem a curious introduction to a collection of the gazes of the likes of Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst and Candice Swanepoel. The book is more about his personal journey than the pictures’ magazine origins.
The rose came to the London-based photographer in a dream, helped by a recent hypnotherapy session. Lima-born Mariano, 40, first tried the treatment in 2014 to help him stop drinking Bacardi and ginger ales at parties. He is now teetotal. He returned to a therapist this year to help him wake earlier in the mornings. When she asked him to think of something nice, the rose bloomed into focus.
Mariano is branching out from his usual work for the likes of Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair. He describes the inspiration: “I started to dream of flowers. I was like what the fuck, are these real dreams?! I came out two months premature; my reasoning for that photo was I couldn’t wait to get out, I was ripped out. The stem at the bottom was the umbilical cord. The middle of the rose was my eyesight into the world.”
Flowers thread through the glossy faces, nipples and penises of the book like slipped fig leaves. They introduce the glow of the character of Mariano to the subjects. He is playful, wiggling his eyebrows throughout our Skype interview from his studio near Chapel Market and at one point getting me to willingly take my shirt off. He first used flowers as a photography student in Melbourne aged 18 for a series themed around memory.
The earliest picture in the book is one of these, “Memory no.1” from 1994. The book explores his definitive photographic encounters up until 2015 with characters ranging from Rihanna to Rick Genest. The chorus of corollas helps tease out the people beneath the pictures. Mariano says: “Flowers seemed like something so natural and pure, a bit like a soul – which is what I try to capture when I do a portrait. There seemed to be a link between a nude, which is very pure; somebody’s soul, which can be very pure as well; and a flower, which is the nicest form of beauty.” He is best-known for his nudes, feeding into a photographic canon that began in the 19th century.
Many people are paired with flowers in the book. The combinations have the otherworldly edge of collage, fists of colour sprouting between monochrome flesh like flora on train tracks. Mariano explains: “The blessing of a book is you can put two things side-by-side and they can say thank you to each other.” A curl on the nape of Jamie Bell’s neck kisses droplets on a scarlet petal. Lionel Messi stands in a Spanish forest enveloped by the velvet folds of a rose. Burlesque New York dancer Dirty Martini throws up an arm to floral fanfare. Together the pairs wink, each resounding visually off the other, lending the book an almost surreal tone.
The flowers introduce a human touch to the beautiful but lofty field of fame and fashion images. They celebrate the democratisation of bare flesh that 2016 has heralded, where the nostril can be as stimulating as the nipple. He leaves the gossip behind to expose the person, disarmed and intimate. This is especially visible in the windswept contemplation of Anna Dello Russo and the quiet smile of Emma Watson. Mariano’s home is full of flowers, white orchids in the living room and pink ones in the kitchen. “I strategically put them around the house to get a feng shui effect,” he says. In the book they act as a kind of visual feng shui. Even the portraits without flowers benefit from their aura.
The individuals are tantalised by the flowers in an appreciation of form and character. Mariano’s creative vision is elucidated through a tour of his professional past in this startling book. The naked famous makes one think of Miley Cyrus and Kanye West, but Mariano eschews this hype with a study of nudes both striking and mortal. His marrying of petals and people illustrates how the creations of an artist benefit from every experience since the cradle.
“Portraits, Nudes and Flowers” by Mariano Vivanco is now available at Damiani Editore. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to Amantaní, a British charity that benefits children in the highlands of Perú, a cause close to Mariano’s heart.
Words by Tom Cox.