Ho‘okupu at Ka‘ala
Image: franco salmoiraghi

Franco Salmoiraghi’s floral portraits are a departure for the veteran photomaker, an attempt at the ‘perfect print’

Franco Salmoiraghi and his camera have been soulmates since the 1950s. He moved to Hawaii in 1968 to teach at Pacific New Media and is most famous for documenting political, social and cultural change here, such as the ruins of historical sites or buildings, the closing of the sugar mills and the landscape of the one-time bomb target island of Kahoolawe.

Which is why the simplicity of his recent photographic exhibit, “Flowers + Plants of Hawaii” is fairly unusual. “[The pictures] are very formalistic,” says Salmoiraghi. “It’s not about the Hawaiian environment, homelessness or anything like that. I tried to make it the most perfect print I could make.” The black-and-white film prints were made between 1978 and 2005, capturing various flora of the island. “My intent has been to respond to the allure of each subject for the qualities it possessed at the moment of seeing,” he said.

In the photos, Salmoiraghi’s lens captures the botany in an almost anthropomorphic light. For example, “Night Dancers” is a print of night-blooming cereus that look startlingly human. “When they start dying, [the petals] droop down like that,” says Salmoiraghi. “I took them home . . . and it wasn’t until I arranged them (that) they looked like hula dancers . . . so I called them the Night Dancers.” For him, these unintentional moments of discovery make the process worthwhile. “I think if you’re successful, there’s a transformation that takes place,” he says. “That’s part of the process. You discover things that take the plants to another level.”

Although Salmoiraghi has been involved in photography for about 40 years, he isn’t an old-school photographer, clinging to film an SLR camera body. In early February, he participated in a phone camera exhibit at South Street Gallery. “It’s amazing, the energy right now that’s out there for photography,” he said. When he first moved to Hawaii, there was little or no support for photographers in terms of grants, galleries and venues. “With all the cameras and phone cameras now, everybody’s a photographer. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how people grow from that and see where that develops,” he said.

Salmoiraghi’s exhibit at the First Hawaiian Center is beautiful, and that’s what he intended. “There’s inspiration everywhere,” he says. “You pick up a camera and it’s like a leash. …It takes you somewhere and something happens. There’s always something that catches your eye.”

Honolulu Museum of Art at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop Street, runs 1/19-5/11, Mon. –Fri., 8:30am–6pm, free, [honoluluacademy.org], 526-0232