Dead or alive?

By keeping cut roses in a state of suspended animation, their colours drained but their life preserved, Alexander James has created images of ethereal beauty

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Since we showcased his Tokyo Taxi project in an edition of Monograph back in 2009, photographer Alexander James has developed something of a fascination with water. His new website ( showcases five bodies of work, all of which he has shot in custom-made inflatable water tanks in his studios in London over the last few years – including his most recent project, Glass. In Glass, James has perfected a new and complex underwater process that slowly replaces the pigment in rose petals with transparent, highly purified water, thus facilitating a stunning view of the flower’s skeletal structure.

“The reason this underwater aesthetic happened and the reason I’ve been doing this is that I’m trying to do something different, something original,” James tells us. “I knew that if you X-ray flowers, or if you hit them with UV light, you reveal this skeletal structure so I wanted to push that. Then comes the mad scientist bit – I knew in my mind’s eye what I wanted to create and so I had to experiment to work out how to achieve it.”

And experiment he did. Four months and a lot of roses later, James tells us that he has developed a three-stage process that takes five days. “There’s a chemical primer and there are two other primers based on temperature and water pressure,” he explains. “The chemical one is the catalyst that makes the process begin to happen and then there are five days of precise temperature control. It’s very important that the water is highly purified,” he adds, “otherwise it doesn’t work because you start to get bacteria or fungal infections and the plant starts to rot in just a few hours. So it’s this clinical, scientific environment that the specimen is left in – and it’s usually shot on day six.”

It’s important, James maintains, to stress that the submerged flowers in these images aren’t dead or decaying, just as each South American butterfly he shot underwater for his Swarm series wasn’t dead but rather in a temperature-induced comatose state. “The amazing thing,” he tells us, “is that every night, as we drop the lighting, you see the submerged flower head pulling in and closing up, and in the morning, back in the light, they open up again, they’re completely alive and doing their thing.”

The flowers are alive but that’s not to say that James doesn’t carefully construct his square-format images. “We do fuck around with [the flowers] a lot, you can see in one of the images that we’ve pulled off a few petals, pulling away the layers to reveal the heart of the plant and a view of a rose that I absolutely know will have never been seen before.”

So what is it about shooting in water tanks that appeals to James? “The process [for the Glass images] is an underwater one but the aesthetic I’m interested in is about using the painterly effect of what the mechanics of water can do to the imagery,” he says. “I’m so bored of digital art in which everything’s been tampered with,” he continues. “What I’m doing, what you see is what you get, there’s no post production or digital trickery. I’m fascinated by what goes on between object, lighting and lens, but also that bit where it shifts through the lens – that’s where the magic for me happens. The way I try to describe it is if you imagine you’re standing in the Mediterranean in three feet of water just looking at your toes dancing in the light – that’s my play area, that’s where I work.”

Editions of selected images from James’ ongoing Glass series are planned in three different sizes: 60cm,  100cm, and 140cm. To see more of his work, visit

See more images from Glass on the CR iPad App