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The Dirt: How flowers became a muse for photographer Emma Bass

Photographer Emma Bass at home in Mount Eden, Auckland

Emma Bass

Photographer Emma Bass at home in Mount Eden, Auckland

Emma Bass is a well-known photographer who for 10 years has been using flowers as her medium. She lives in Mt Eden, Auckland, with her partner Aaron (who has three adult children in the US) and her children George, 12, and Olive, 20.

As a child I was always creative and when I left school I was at a crossroads. I had a few friends who went to art school and I was either going to do that or something that suited me practically because I really wanted to travel. So I chose nursing because I knew you could get a job anywhere in the world.

I loved being a nurse. Sometimes I really miss it. Just being able to make a difference to someone’s day who’s vulnerable, it’s a sense of joy. But I didn’t really find my people until I studied photography.

My father was a cardiologist, so I’d spent a lot of time in hospitals. He was a bit of a socialist doctor, he never went private. When I was 10 he asked me to go up to the coronary care unit and paint the windows with a friend. So every Christmas from the age of 1 I would go up and paint flowers and trees and Christmas decorations on the windows.

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I really saw that something that is uplifting and beautiful can make a difference. I’ve donated a lot of my photography work to hospitals and hospices. It makes me feel great because I’m still present in a hospital.

My generation were the products of benign neglect. “Go play in the forest and we’ll see you at the end of the day.” My parents were separated and my mum was single and young and gorgeous and off having fun. I don’t blame her with four teenagers at home.

She was a radiographer and so busy but she always managed to put a bit of color in the garden. She’d shove cuttings from other people’s gardens in the ground. I remember a vast array of daisies and geraniums splashed around our rambling garden.

Ex-nurse Emma has donated a lot of her photography work to hospitals and hospices.

Emma Bass

Ex-nurse Emma has donated a lot of her photography work to hospitals and hospices.

I came back from overseas and I was working in an intensive care unit being paid less than my younger brother was to paint houses. So I decided to find something I was really passionate about and that was photography. In the 90s I became a commercial photographer. Now my art practice is my focus.

Both before and after my daughter Olive was born I had a few miscarriages, which was really quite heartbreaking. At the age of 42 I was going to hang up my hat but then my little boy George snuck through. I really couldn’t quite believe it.

My marriage broke up when I was in my mid-40s and the way I survived that whole time was that I just started creating these works. I noted that whenever I was working with flowers and creating something it made me feel joyful, no matter what. The flowers have always got me through my little painful moments in life.

For me divorce was like a death. It’s also very difficult when you’re managing children and having to put your good face on. That’s why the flowers were so important. It was about trying to rebuild myself and get to like myself again. It was almost like having to marry myself. I did meditation retreats, I surrounded myself with supportive people. I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It was a kind of grieving process and it took a long time.

Emma Bass in her low maintenance, “a bit Palm Springs” garden.

Emma Bass

Emma Bass in her low maintenance, “a bit Palm Springs” garden.

I always have in my head that I would love to be in the garden but I just don’t have any spare time. I have a growing business and the creation, production and digital side of things takes up a lot of time. I have two children and now I also have a lovely new partner. I never knew life could get this good.

I did try that online dating thing, which was a bit disastrous. And then I met someone in the wild – at a barbecue on Waiheke. He was there being set up with another friend, which I was in on, but they didn’t really connect. He messaged me on Instagram and it slowly grew. He’s moved in and we operate really well together. We have skills that complement each other and he’s very involved with what I do, it’s just a really good compatible relationship.

Any blended family is going to be challenging right? You have to upskill, you have to all be on the same page. We’re going to get a book on it.

I have a green garden, quite subtropical, lots of palms, it’s a 50s house so it’s a bit Palm Springs. I’ve been here for about 18 or 19 years and I haven’t put flowers in. It’s low maintenance because I’m incredibly busy but my friend Xanthe White has been promising to make me a “living vase” that I can look out on. I’m terrified that it’s something that I’m going to have to look after, but she’s brilliant and I’m going to trust her.

It’s a busy rich colourful life, that’s how I see it. I’ve got two works shortlisted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in London. There’s a book happening. I never imagined in my life that I would be doing the things I’m doing. If you start with something you’re passionate about, all these opportunities arise, it’s heartening isn’t it?

Emma Bass

“My approach with plants is if it doesn’t survive then it’s not meant to be.”

Emma’s gardening tips

  • Grow some sorrel. It has a tart lemony taste that peps up any salad and it’s also good in a soup.

  • Bromeliads and succulents are great for the low maintenance gardener. Basically, my approach with plants is if it doesn’t survive then it’s not meant to be.

  • Get a worm farm, so good for your soil. And get a lime tree, so good for your gin and tonics.

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