Peter Peryer photographed this alluring, alien looking detail of a Datura plant from a specimen growing by his front door, one of several he was cultivating in his New Plymouth garden at the time. This tension between everyday domestic subject matter and a sense of the otherworldly is planted firmly at the heart of Peryer’s work.
Botanical subjects are prominent in Peryer’s practice, taking on a number of guises and a myriad of possible readings. His intuitive lens hones in on their unique and often uncanny forms—particularly true of those which emerge from his own garden—generating highly personalised and idiosyncratic portraits of these fascinating flora.
Datura is a genus of nine species of poisonous flowering plants of the family Solanaceae, or night-shades. Its flowers are verspertine, meaning they bloom at dusk. All Datura species are poisonous when ingested, especially their seeds and flowers.
Datura varieties are known under a wide variety of poetic and highly suggestive names. In the West, these include Moonflower, Jimson Weed, Devil’s Trumpets, Hell’s Bells and Thornapple, al-luding to their notorious effects including hallucinations, blindness and death.
Diverse ethnobotanical histories attest to the use of these plants as aids in witchcraft and magic, powerful intoxicants capable of inducing mind-altering visions, poisons, aphrodisiacs and even medicines. Many of these uses are grounded in indigenous shamanic traditions, in which the plants are utilised to further the user’s exploration and understanding of the nature of reality.
The artist recounts a story of American Civil War troops imbibing a potion made from Moonflower. It happened in Jamestown, hence the plant also becoming known as Jimson Weed. Peryer has travelled throughout New Mexico, where he saw it growing in the wild, and traced the landscape inhabited by Georgia O’Keefe, who painted Jimson Weed and, like him, cultivated it around her patio.
In this image, Peryer’s close cropping and sharp focus is reminiscent of botanical photography, cap-turing as much detailed visual information as possible: in this case, right down to the tiny hairs that adorn the spikes of the Datura’s seed pod. Yet the luxuriously warm black and white tones of the gelatin silver print, and what appears to be a white studio backdrop, align this photograph with the gravitas of the Western art tradition. Indeed, its filmic celebration of plant morphology finds parallels in the work of Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Weston and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few.
Peryer’s poetics load the spaces between object, image and viewer. On the one hand, this image is a faithful depiction of an object. On the other, it is an evocative portrayal of a potent psychoactive substance with a rich and chequered history. In this sense, Peryer’s photograph acts as a signifier of an altered state, the seed pod sowing the idea of a visionary experience.
Peter Peryer, email message to the author, February 22, 2016.
“Datura,” accessed February 23, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datura
Peryer, email message, February 22, 2016.
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 376. Quoted in “Jimson Weed (painting),” accessed February 23, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimson_Weed_(painting)