By Annette Hinkle
Photographer Kathryn Szoka is always on the lookout for transitional views. Her series of Vanishing Landscapes images preserved the remnants of a fading agricultural tradition on the East End, while Life Along the Turnpike documented the multi-generational families of Bridgehampton on a stretch of roadway which is quickly being discovered by upscale interests.
But this weekend in honor of the season, Szoka opens a new show at Canio’s Gallery featuring photographs on two altogether different subjects — both offering quieter reflections on the fleeting moments of our lives.
The aptly named “Winter Whites,” opens with a reception this Saturday and on view will be Szoka’s snow scenes of Sag Harbor and environs from winters past as well as her images of a unique, white flower — the night blooming cereus — which produces buds that open on a single night each year.
Though the cereus plant is from the tropical rainforest, it’s actually a member of the cactus family and produces large fragrant blossoms reminiscent of lilies.
“Bethlehem lily is its nickname,” explains Szoka. “If you look inside, you’ll see the yellow to orange anthers which people say look like the Christ manger and hay. I think the other part of the flower looks like the star.”
In fact, it was Fr. Socorro Fernandes, a priest at St. Andrew’s Church in Sag Harbor, who first shared the plant’s nickname with Szoka. He told her the flower did indeed bloom at Christmastime in his native India.
Szoka has heard of cereus flowers blooming in Russia (among other places) at this time of year. Yet despite spending the winter in a friend’s cozy greenhouse, Szoka’s own plant has show a predilection for blooming in summer only.
The plant was a gift from a friend years ago, and Szoka readily admits, most of the year there’s little recommend it, visually speaking.
“As a plant without the bloom, there’s not much to speak for it. It’s rangy and gangly, not beautiful in greenery,” says Szoka. “But when it blooms, it opens beautifully.”
The bloom of the cereus can be up to 8 inches across, and each bud lives just one night (for the benefit of moths, rather than butterflies or bees). The number of blooms a given cereus produces in a season, explains Szoka, is entirely up to the plant.
“It depends on how fortunate you are,” she says. “For several summers, ours has had three bloom cycles in a summer. Each cycle has a couple buds.”
The most buds Szoka and her partner, Maryann Callendrille have had on their cereus was this summer when the plant produced 17 — five the first night, eight on the middle night and the remaining on the final blooming night for the year.
Whatever time of year the flower blooms, Szoka finds it truly is an event. And it is those rare evenings when the cereus struts its stuff that Szoka documents in her current imagery.
“It’s kind of vampire like,” says Szoka of the blooming process. “Basically it starts opening around 6:30 p.m. It’s kind of tricky to know what night it will open. The aroma is intoxicating, like a combination of lily and gardenia and very strong.”
The opening of the flowers has become more than a photo op for Szoka in recent years — it’s also become something of a social event for she and Callendrille.
“We have gatherings and invite friends over to sit and enjoy it and have a glass of wine,” says Szoka. “You can almost see it opening. I’ve done time-lapse photography on a tripod and maybe by 10 p.m., it’s fully open.”
From that point on, the flower will take another four to eight hours to close back down, and then, it’s done. In order to capture the action, on blooming nights, Szoka sets up multiple lighting sources to illuminate the lily as she photographs it.
But knowing exactly when that night will arrive can be as illusive as the blooms themselves.
Szoka notes she can expect the bud to be up to 13” long when it’s ready to bloom. But it also has to swell and mature before opening, so she admits there have been evenings when she’s suspected a bloom is at hand, only to find the plant is not quite ready.
Yet there’s something about the anticipation and delayed gratification which Szoka finds meaningful. The process itself serves as a reminder to draw back from our hectic lives and adjust to nature’s own schedule. Much like the holidays themselves in which weeks of frantic preparation gives way to quiet days spent with family and friends.
“In our fast paced world to have something like this which is exquisitely beautiful and takes its time is unique,” says Szoka. “We slow down too and watch it.”
“It kind of ties into the season, the solstice, the holidays,” she adds. “Things are ephemeral. I think we’re all more in touch with the ephemeral nature during the shorter season with the darkness and all we are anticipating.”
Anticipation is also evident in Szoka’s other photographs on view in “Winter Whites,” and the subject, pristine snow, is nearly as fleeting as the elusive cereus blossom.
“The theme of the show is white, the ephemeral nature of snow that comes and goes — sometimes only in a night,” says Szoka. “It’s also about the infinite shades of white. Landscape images and flowers, the different shades white takes on are fascinating.”
“It’s another tie to the season,” she adds.
While the East End has been known to get buried by the stuff in select years (last year was certainly not one of them, so we may be due), in her snowy landscapes, Szoka strives to capture the scene while it’s all fresh— preferably still falling. That’s where the anticipation lies — in the perfect blanket of white, untainted by the actions and movements of humans.
Though we seem to get our fair share of it, that ideal sort of snow can be as elusive as the Bethlehem lily. Which is why when Szoka sees it coming down, she’s prone to bundling up quickly and heading out into the thick of the storm.
“If I can, I try to get out. There’s something beautiful about capturing the landscape while its snowing,” says Szoka, a self described weather geek. “I love the idea of the snow being fresh, new, nothing has tainted it, there’s no dirt on it.”
“I also love when it adheres to the branches. But that doesn’t last,” she says.
But for Szoka, perhaps the best thing about freshly fallen snow is the way in which it adds brightness to an otherwise drab winter landscape.
“When the snow comes, it’s like everything is painted with light,” she adds. “There’s something about a winter landscape that’s always attracted me.”
“There’s nothing more beautiful than Sag Harbor at Christmas time with snow. It’s magical.”
“Winter Whites” will be on view at Canio’s Books Holiday Open House and reception this Saturday, December 22 from 4 to 6 p.m. The community is invited to stop by for seasons greetings and a bit of good cheer. Canio’s is at 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Call 725-4926 for details.