Succulents in glorious B&W

I recently participated in a black & white photo challenge on Facebook: for seven days, post a B&W photo of your everyday life, no explanation, no people. What initially seemed like a chore quickly became more fun than I had expected—and the catalyst for this post.

Nobody sees the world in black & white—not even dogs—so B&W photos are, by their very nature, an abstraction. In the absence of color, shapes, textures, and the relationship between light and dark take on outsize significance.

The natural world has been a favorite subject of B&W photographers since the invention of the medium. There is no shortage of beautiful images of plants and flowers—just take a look at the floral work of Tom Baril and Ron van Dongen—but succulents have traditionally taken a backseat to less prickly favorites such as tulips and calla lilies.

There are exceptions. Imogen Cunningham photographed agaves and aloes in the 1920s, and Brett Weston, son of Edward, made images of cactus, agaves and other succulents from the 1930s on.

Aeoniums, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

In my book, however, the undisputed master of B&W succulent photography was Don Worth. He taught photography at San Francisco State University for more than 30 years, and in his spare time he hybrized echeverias (the perennial favorite Echeveria 'Afterglow' is his best known creation). His photographs of cactus, agaves, sempervivums and echeverias are filled with an inner light that verges on the spiritual (he also photographed tropical plants like alocasias, miconias and coleus with equal success). His best images were published in 2005 in an exquisite book titled Close to Infinity. Unfortunately, the few copies still available are $200 and up. 

Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to visit Don Worth's exotic Mill Valley garden in 2012 as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program. Don died in 2009, but the garden—and Don's legacy—lives on thanks to the dedication of the new owner.

Which brings me back to the theme of this post. After finding inspiration in the B&W photos I posted on Facebook this past week, I decided to pick 30 recent succulent images and interpret them in black and white. These aren't real-life representations of these plants but rather my emotional response to them. I hope these photos will strike a chord with you, too.

Aeoniums and echeverias, garden of Linda Roye, Sacramento, CA

Echeveria 'Imbricata' and Sedum 'Angelina', garden of Sue Fitz, Davis, CA

Sempervivums, Poot's House of Cactus, Ripon, CA

Ruffled echeveria, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Echeveria 'Lady Aquarius', my own garden

Echeveria 'Compton's Carousel', garden of Mariel Dennis, Rancho Cordova, CA

Dudleya brittonii, my own garden

Mike and Danielle Romero's undersea garden, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Aloe polyphylla, garden of Ann Nichols, Piedmont, CA

Aloe tomentosa, Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Aloe vaombe, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia, CA

Aloe vaombe, my own garden

Aloe vanbalenii, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Agave ovatifolia, Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Agave ovatifolia, garden of John Kuzma, Portland, OR

Agave attenuata 'Ray of Light', Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Agave geminiflora, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Agave 'Kissho Kan', Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Agave cupreata, my own garden

Agave bovicornuta, my own garden

Agave cupreata, my own garden

Agave 'Mad Cow', my own garden

Agave applanata 'Cream Spike' and Ferocactus peninsulae, Succulent Gardens, Castroville, CA

Uebelmannia pectinifera, Poot's House of Cactus, Ripon, CA

Main entrance, Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA

Agave vilmoriniana and Cereus sp., Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center, Riverside, CA

Ferocactus, Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center, Riverside, CA

Euphorbia horrida 'Snow Flake', my own garden

Euphorbia horrida and Euphorbia horrida 'Snow Flake', Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Arcadia, CA

TECHNICAL NOTE: The borders I chose for these images are part of my artistic interpretation. They evoke old photographs, Polaroid film, or traditional photographic processes where a sensitizer solution is hand-brushed onto a piece of paper (hence the brush strokes on the sides). In my darkroom days, I experimented with many of these processes myself. Now I can get the same—or better—results in far less time using software like ON1 Effects (now free!).


  1. Much as I love color, it does distract from form and texture. You B&W photos are beautiful - each and every one is an art piece.

  2. What an absorbing post, Gerhard. With gardeners now wallowing in wonderful color images online, b&w photos have more power than ever to make viewers pause, and see in a different way.

    :: There are exceptions. Imogen Cunningham photographed agaves and aloes in the 1920s, and Brett Weston, son of Edward, made images of cactus, agaves and other succulents from the 1930s on. ::
    This immediately brought to mind another example, the well-known photo by Gertrude Jekyll of her old garden boots planted with Sempervivums. She took up photography fairly early in her long life, so it might have been as early as the 1880s or as late as the Cunningham and Weston work.

    1. I must admit I wasn't familiar with Gertrude Jekyll's photography, but I found a very interesting article about an album of original photographs of hers that was recently sold for $86,000.

  3. Wonderful images Gerhard. Photographing our gardens in b&w is definitely something everyone should do. It reveals so much that our eyes normally miss, distracted by color.

    1. So true! We're not used to viewing the world in B&W but a lot can be learned from it.

  4. All beautiful, but some are exceptionally striking! Focus on the lines and spines and light and textural contrast...

    An AR (augmented reality) app that views your garden in B&W sounds pretty simple. Would it overwhelm?

    1. Ansel Adams walked around with a dark amber filter to see what a scene might look like in B&W--in essence evaluating tonal relationships. Here is an article about it. That's overkill for gardening but an AR app would be cool.

  5. These are wonderful ! I love to fiddle with BW in Lightroom, but I'm bad about recognizing what would make a good BW when I'm shooting. It's a great way to turn a horrible bad-light contrasty situation into a decent photo.You've inspired me to pay more attention ..especially love the A.attenuata image.

    1. Kathy, the good thing is you don't need to decide ahead of time which image might look good in B&W. You can experiment to your heart's content later at your computer.

      As much as I enjoy working with photos, it's a black hole that can easily eat up all your time!

  6. Judging by your photos, most succulents plants need no color beyond a range of greys to be interesting. The dark Aloe vanbalenii against the Euphorbia is dramatic.


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