Fields of tulips roll out like huge bolts of fabric, striping the flat Dutch landscape in yellows, oranges, reds and magentas. When he wasn’t bicycling or playing soccer, Ron van Dongen wandered those fields in the village of Warmond, Netherlands, where he grew up. In August, he’d harvest bulbs for summer vacation money in a place world-famous for tulips.
Van Dongen takes me back several decades while we sit at his kitchen table — his dog, Elliot, asleep at our feet — in the Portland, Oregon home that he shares with his partner, David. Out the window, the late-fall garden braces for winter’s frigid rains. With his quiet demeanor and gentle voice marked by a slight accent, he tells me that some of his earliest memories are not of people, just “trees, animals, colors, flowers and plants. I don’t know why that attracted me, but it did. And that’s never gone away.”
Building on the strong mental images from his childhood are the pictures van Dongen has created for the past 25 years. He is best known for his black-and-white and color close-up explorations of plants, mainly flowers. Larger than life, they revel in their geometry and poetry. How else could we see so clearly the chessboard pattern of the checkered lily (“Fritillaria Meleagris”) or the flamenco dancer’s dress twirling in the flowering kale’s ruffled splendor (“Brassica Oleracea ‘Nagoya Red’”)? His intimate botanic portraits join his rich oeuvre of human ones. That day in his house, he begins by spreading the latter across his large dining room table, telling the stories of each. In the child that he photographed in the same pose every two years for 16, and the friend whose demise from AIDS he documented, I see tight buds gradually opening and blooms drooping. In his nudes, there’s the simple graceful curve of a stem, or petals unabashedly splayed, exposing everything. And as I turn the large, thick pages of his photo books of tulips, calla lilies, sunflowers and other plants, their faces look back at me.
Twelve monographs of van Dongen’s photos have been published since the late 1990s, several by the esteemed Nazraeli Press. He has shown his work in 15 galleries in the United States, Canada, England, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea and Mexico. Natural History, The London Times, Martha Stewart Living, Elle and others have published his photographs, and his collectors include the likes of Sir Elton John and Ralph Lauren.
But he is first and always a gardener. “That’s more important to me than photography,” he says. “It’s about the sheer pleasure of growing plants and being actively engaged with my natural surroundings, to get a better understanding of them. And the appreciation of what you take into your body. There’s nothing more rewarding than growing vegetables and bringing them to the table.”
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2014 issue.