Ann Shelton’s photographs have hidden histories. Kim Knight talks to the artist ahead of an exhibition spanning 20 years of her work.

Purple flowers, fat, orange berries and dark, lobed leaves. Pretty, pretty poroporo.

Unripe, the fruit is poisonous. The plant is considered a weed, fast-growing and invasive, especially prevalent after fires.

But poroporo was once used as a contraceptive. Maori women used it to defer menstruation and in Taranaki, in the late 1970s, a commercial crop was trialled because its leaves are rich in solasodine - a steroid used in birth control medicines.

Pretty poroporo has hidden histories. And so do thistle and fennel, yarrow and rhododendron and many more garden staples. Their common ground?

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The Courtesan, Poroporo (Solanum sp.), from Jane Says, 2015-ongoing.
The Courtesan, Poroporo (Solanum sp.), from Jane Says, 2015-ongoing.

"They have all been included in, or form the basis of, traditional herbal healthcare regimes," says photographer, Ann Shelton. "Particularly to do with controlling fertility."

For more than a year, their secret histories have dominated this artist's Wellington home. In her living room on the edge of the city's Otari-Wilton's Bush, Shelton took the plants that have been used to stop pregnancies and start abortions, and rearranged them into forms influenced by the Japanese art of ikebana.

"Ikebana, as I understand it, is the concept that nature is perfect, but there is just a little bit too much of it. It needs distilling and minimising and controlling.

"I was thinking about what would be an appropriate way to photograph these plants, something that would convey the control they are capable of asserting."

Blue Boy, computer part from the Wanganui Computer from the city of gold and lead, 2013.
Blue Boy, computer part from the Wanganui Computer from the city of gold and lead, 2013.

The images, measuring more than a metre high, come together as Jane says - a photographic series that Shelton, 49, says is the most difficult she has completed as an artist.

"My very understanding partner put up with the lounge being a photographic studio, and each work took several days to make. It's one thing to have had a plant arrangement I was happy with, but as soon as I put it in front of the camera, that didn't work. Each arrangement has to be reworked for the camera.

"I took ikebana lessons for 10 months. I don't just take photographs. I don't walk around the environment and see something I want to photograph. To quote the Alfredo Jaar work, you don't take a photograph, you make a photograph. I spent a long time thinking on how I was going to do this."

She named the series after a favourite song by Jane's Addiction, but also because Jane, as in Doe, is a stand-in for all women.

Laudanum, Minnie Dean’s unmarked grave, Winton cemetery, Southland, New Zealand from Public places 2001-03.
Laudanum, Minnie Dean’s unmarked grave, Winton cemetery, Southland, New Zealand from Public places 2001-03.

"I'm hoping to draw the viewer in," says Shelton. "The glossy surfaces and the saturated colours ... But I'm also hoping they might sometimes just go a little bit further, and investigate the works in more depth. Either/or is good. There are no rules for looking at the photographs."

Timaru-born Shelton, who currently lectures on two degree programmes at Massey University, is speaking to Canvas before the opening of the major review of her artistic career, Dark Matter.

Ann Shelton. Photo / Nina Van Der Voorn
Ann Shelton. Photo / Nina Van Der Voorn

It will feature a new book on her work (designed by partner Duncan Munro), the jane says series, and it will track her exhibition history back 20 years to Redeye, Shelton's infamous documentation of Auckland's experimental art scene. In between: Public Places, examining crime and murder scenes; Room Room, with its circular images of the vacated rooms of a drug and rehabilitation facility; the city of gold and lead, that looks at the media portrayal of Neil Roberts, the man who died trying to blow up the Wanganui Computer Centre and in a forest - Shelton's photographs of the so-called "Hitler Oaks" grown from the saplings presented to winners at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (there's one in her hometown, given to Jack Lovelock after he won the 1500 metres).

Shelton: "It's an ongoing interest. Looking at plant narratives in relation to trauma and violence and history ..."

The Hysteric, Fennel (Foeniculum sp.) from Jane Says.
The Hysteric, Fennel (Foeniculum sp.) from Jane Says.

There is a faint echo on her cellphone. The effect is like being in a lecture hall and, to an extent, so is the conversation. Shelton has never just pressed the shutter on pretty pictures. Commentators describe an exhaustive research process. A "private investigator" and a "domestic archaeologist". She began her photographic career on newspapers, and now inhabits a world that announces exhibitions of her "lens-based practice", in which "time, place, narrative, trauma and female authorship unfold in shifting and destabilising ways".

Once upon a time, she shot flower shows for the Oamaru Mail and The Dominion. What would her picture editors back then think of her photographs now?

"I think they'd be extremely upset at the amount of time I took to make them!"

Shelton left news photography for art school, contemplating "some of the ethical problems associated with journalism; some of the situations I was put in as a press photographer - photographing people who were in mourning, hearing over the radio that I had to go here now, because there'd been a train crash".

She was also influenced by Susan Sontag's "trenchant critique" On Photography, "and it's relationship to photographing what we'd call 'other' in inverted commas. I wanted to turn the camera back on my social group. That was a very thought-through move for me."

Fiona in Queen Street from Redeye 1995-97.
Fiona in Queen Street from Redeye 1995-97.

That series, Redeye, first exhibited in 1996 at the artist-run Teststrip on Karangahape Rd, made Shelton infamous.

Former partner and fellow artist Giovanni Intra wrote in Pavement magazine: "What Shelton modestly terms a "social diary" is really a charismatic expose of the hideous truths and self-conscious mythologies of unemployed psychopaths who frequent Verona cafe and actually believe in drag. Shelton's is an eye-in-the-pie snap-shot voyeurism."

Intra described the works as stark, brittle, transitory (and beautiful) accounts of Auckland: "They envision a population which we know is condemned to obscurity, not to mention old age, premature death and a whole host of other attendant mediocrities. But in the meantime there's the instant space of now."

Men in dresses, a doll-faced Lisa Reihana (next year's Venice Biennale representative) and former partner and artist Fiona Amundsen in drag. Figures with exaggerated limp wrists, fake balloon breasts and shiny, shiny eyeshadow. The Elam School of Fine Arts crowd, and friends, writ large and in-your-face.

"I do think that time on Karangahape Rd was really incredible," says Shelton. "It was a time when lots of things were coalescing. We had something to say, something we were striving for, and I still think that was incredibly important."

Verona, from technologies of the self (remote self-portraits) 1995-2003.
Verona, from technologies of the self (remote self-portraits) 1995-2003.

Words to describe the period: Vibrant. Fast. Furious. Experimental. Saturated. Fluid. Direct. Unapologetic.

"And explosive, in terms of identity. That was a really big thing for me. I was really interested in how identity could be articulated both in terms of gender and sexuality. We were a generation that was doing that. Redeye brings together an art scene, in terms of the artist run spaces that were developing in Auckland, and also a queer scene ... and this whole idea of performativity.

"We were obsessed with performing our own personalities and our own genders, outside of gender norms. I think that's an aspect of that 90s culture that doesn't exist now. We were obsessed with dressing up, in a way that we felt confounded some of society's stereotypes and codes, I guess."

Shelton photographed the same people in multiple guises, with a visual aesthetic she describes as "abrupt" partly because of the use of direct flash, but also, "because I didn't want to embellish it or pretty it up or have sunsets in the background or something like that".

The Child Bride, Thistle.
The Child Bride, Thistle.

Photography, says Shelton, is a slippery object. Images can be transformed by captions. "Moments" can be contrived or manipulated. Ultimately, the viewer decides what they're looking at.

"Photography is being completely transformed. It's becoming much less tangible, it doesn't exist in prints in lots of contexts. It's this much more nebulous thing.

"Right since its inception, it's had all these really strong links to control and power. Photo-graphy was involved in the invention of hysteria, it's been used medically to assert certain views. It's been involved in war, ever since Nadar [French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Felix Tournachon] invented aerial photography. Photography has this underside. We have to keep an eye on it."

Ann Shelton: Dark Matter opens at Auckland Art Gallery next Saturday and runs until April 17, 2017.