Whether it be American beauties, young Hollywood, or mothers with children, Clairborne Swanson Frank has shot them all. For her newest body of work, the portrait photographer was inspired by yet another kind of natural beauty, those of the floral variety. She most recently focused her camera on Flowers for a series of fine art prints that brought her serenity and peace in a time of COVID chaos. Below we take a look behind the lens, as Swanson Frank and I discuss life’s passions, pursing your dreams, and most importantly, family time.
Were you formally trained in photography or did it resonate with you as a hobby that then blossomed into a professional career?
My mom was a hobby photographer—that was her passion. She had a natural way with the camera and often carried her Nikon on family trips. I went to art school for Fashion in San Francisco, where I took a photography class. It turned out to be effortless for me. The professor gave us free reign for our final project, and I decided to style and shoot my friends, which ended up being my first book. I’ve always had a silent dream of being a photographer, but fashion felt safer. So after leaving Vogue, I put it out into the universe to see where it would go.
You’ve produced a number of books with Assouline that consist of portraits of various women in different stages of their lives. What prompted you to transition to still life? Was this transition easier or harder than photographing people?
I try to be thoughtful with all my book work. But during COVID, I didn’t have an agenda or concept of what this project was. After homeschooling with the children each day, I was looking for some alone time and a creative escape. The idea came to me at a moment when we were isolated at home—nature was the space I went to for comfort and peace. I really fell in love with flowers at a new level during quarantine. Having Spring flowers blooming around me during those uncertain times was inspiring. They became my people—I even styled them the same way I do my subjects. Flowers are an extension of my storytelling, just told in a different way.
How has your experience in the fashion world influenced your perspective when taking photographs?
I was in love with imagery and magazines growing up. The biggest gift I took from working at Vogue was having the ability to watch the creatives bring a story to life. At the end of the day, I’m a storyteller and I love to tell each one in my own, original way. Being exposed to that world for so long has definitely had a big influence on my work.
I love that you collaborated with one of your sons on the project. It’s such a wonderful way to spend quality time with your child, while also being productive professionally. Was this an organic experience or did your son express a prior interest in photography?
Hunter is used to me having the camera around. It was sweet because he always wants to be involved with everything that’s going on, while he is also a creative soul at heart. It all started with me photographing tulips in our garden, which later became this larger project each afternoon. Most often my son and I would go into our dining room with different flowers we had collected from the side of the road, or ones we had picked up at Whole Foods or McArdle’s (a beautiful nursery here in Greenwich). My six-year-old became very much my assistant, my flower handler, my light catcher, and hand muse. But then he became a pricey assistant—charging me $2 a flower!
There is a minimalistic nature to your photographs, in that each flower is shot against a white background, at different angles through varying degrees of light and shadows. The overall effect is less traditional, still-life portraiture and more “modern elegance.”
I just felt that these flowers were so beautiful they didn’t need to be dressed up. It was about documenting the power of their natural beauty. It’s incredible to think that a flower starts as this little seed that develops into something so remarkable—as we watch it go through different stages of growth. I find flowers analogous to our journey in life as women, as we go through various stages until reaching full bloom. And soon after I photographed each flower, I noticed how quickly each bloom would wither and die. A reminder of how fleeting life can be.
Did you plan to shoot over a longer course of time or during specific seasons to ensure you could include a wider variety of flowers?
The process was spontaneous. I photographed the flowers that inspired me, or ones I felt were really loved. Although the project is ongoing, the heart of it is done. I have always embarked on projects that have a definitive end. I’ll probably shoot through the summer with flowers that I feel are still missing, although you really can just go on and on.
What made you choose to start selling prints rather than books as you’ve done in the past?
I wanted to move into fine art. I also wanted to create art that could be accessible to people—that could exist in their living spaces. Having the right partners was also key in my decision. I’m selling my work on Chairish and Moda Operandi, as well as some designs geared toward children on Maisonette. The reach goes so much further online than it would in an art gallery, and it helps me put my art out into the world in a new, modern way.
I hope to continue doing the work I love by creating ad campaigns with exceptional brands. I also plan to publish more books, and I am inspired by this new rising fine art business, which I hope will expand with a new body of work every few years.