John Arsenault loves beauty. That’s his terrible secret. He turns his lens and critical eye toward people and places of his daily life and captures the kind of moments that most people overlook. In these elusive slips of time, Arsenault manages to capture grace and dignity.
For more than twenty years, his photographs brought to the fore the special qualities of light, tattoos, taste, style, humor, desire, and, always, pathos. It is not surprising, then, to learn that he discovered the ecstatic beauty of roses.
The rose photographs of For You! Modern Day Love Letters make up part of the artist’s larger body of work, which coalesce into a type of visual diary. Another includes Barmaid snapshots taken at the Eagle, a leather bar in Los Angeles, and another self-portraits. The rose photographs are important in themselves because they provide the tenderest glimpse into the artist’s practice.
The roses have become somewhat of a mild obsession for Arsenault. He will spot a rose bush or garden at any time during his daily routine in Los Angeles. Most often he’ll catch a flicker of color out of the corner of his eye, then refocus his attention and begin to search for the elusive photograph of exquisite beauty.
As he photographs, he composes for depth of field and color arrangements. He is searching for that virtually indescribable something to stir his emotions and provide authentic response to his pursuit of beauty.
The photographs in For You! initially began with images he made using only his iPhone, then uploaded to Instagram. Because of this nearly ubiquitous and fairly inexpensive technology, the impact of the photographs seems almost miraculous. For Arsenault, the iPhone and Instagram provide a newer, more interactive working method.
He recently expanded the series by focusing on traditional still-life arrangements and photographing with a digital 35 mm camera. Arsenault subverted the typical conventions of still life by gathering the roses into plastic and glass containers of no particular beauty. Almost despite his careful efforts to emphasize the quiet and mundane, he captured the intensity of the soon-to-wither flowers. Their beauty pushes against every edge of the photographs.
The images in For You! harken back to a kind of beauty that once seemed almost sentimental and old-fashioned. It is worth commenting that roses as a subject are almost absurdly saccharine, the territory of natty gardeners and nineteenth-century artists.
Arsenault manages to make roses edgy and toxically poignant. He suspends color and time within the photograph, allowing the viewer to indulge his or her need for aesthetic experience so intensely simple and so primordially integrated into the soul that any sense of shame fades into pure enjoyment.
Arsenault’s images give a twenty- first century response to the Western tradition of symbolism of roses. American modernists such a Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) and Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) found pure form and an unconscious expression of sexuality in the flowers. Artists in the nineteenth century, such as Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840), looked to the rose painting as a practice of scientific taxonomy and technical brilliance.
Others such as Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904) sought to apply aspects of modernism to the still-life tradition refined by the Dutch flower painters of the seventeenth century. Looking at Arsenault’s roses, it is difficult not to feel the tug of these divergent histories while layering his own feelings of fragility tinged with a darker aspect of impending decay and morbidity. The late blooms remind us that this is inevitable.
His tension of beauty of the foreboding makes his roses virtually unforgettable to the close observer. Arsenault is shamelessly sharing all kinds of secrets with us—about photography and the history of art, about beauty, about death, and about traditions unbroken since the days of ancient philosophers, artists, and priest-figures. Death unites us all.
The ancients believed the rose symbolized love and desire, and this remains unbroken for centuries: “The rose, the emblem of love, was given by Cupid as a bribe to Harpocrates, the god of silence, whence originated the custom in northern countries of suspending a rose from the ceiling at meetings where secrecy was enjoined.
Carvings of roses are seen on the ceilings of old dining halls in this country and are probably the origin of the ‘ceiling rose,’ the ornamental centre-piece of the ceilings of most Victorian houses.” From these now obscure origins, we have the term sub rosa.
Arsenault keeps us under the spell of the rose. His photographs allow us into his confidence through the enchantment of beauty then to the sublime and, ultimately, to admission of the difficulties and pain of our time. Through his photographs, we’ve agreed to his logic and conclusions, and we share his secrets.