Tohono Chul Interview

June 15, 2020

A recent interview by James Schaub, Tohono Chul Curator of Exhibitions highlighted my photography of the Queen of the Night and other creative endeavors. 

KWright_TC interviewKWright_TC interview

Karen Wright has shared a lot of images with me over the past several years. Each one offers something interesting, something solid, something good. Each one demonstrates her intense interest and appreciation for her subject. Like many photographers she tries to capture a defining light, and she does. On top of that, when her images work ‘best’ there is an additional light present, a light that hints at a sort of magic. She instinctively knows that these images work ‘best’ and they do; but, you know – the word ‘best’ is not something I have ever heard her say. And, I don’t ever think I will.

Wright works hard to make her images work. Karen’s continual advancement of her creative practice is driven by a natural curiosity that finds her discovering fantastic things – it is tempered by a relaxed modesty that stops her from declaring any one image as the ‘best.’  Karen’s approach always pushes forward.  Learning with every step and from every subject – she is unsparing in her efforts to share whatever she can toward the creation of “The Best Photograph I Ever Took.”

But, you will never hear her say that. We will leave that bold declaration to everyone else.

James Schaub: Karen – One year you set up an open air studio out on the North Trail during Tohono Chul’s annual Bloom Night. The idea was to assist visitors in capturing the magic of the Queen of the Night by giving them instructions to best capture an image of a blooming Peniocereus greggii. The guidance you provided was tremendous.

Pretty much all the people you worked with that year photographing the blooms with their phones, having little to no luck at all – until they ran into you, over by Emerald and Ruby. The tutorial you presented to each person was so exacting and informative – You were not giving a demonstration per se, you were working with each person directly – a line would develop, and one by one they would step up, listen, take several images, and after a minute or two – leave absolutely mesmerized! Mesmerized by the stunning image they took and the beautiful flower it captured. An abundance of “Thank Yous” and a profusion of smiles that never stopped.

Back in the Exhibit House people told me that they could not get over how effortless you made it seem, the resulting images so immediately better than what they previously had.  For some, you were a magician. They couldn’t have been happier – they each had something of their own, that they created, to remember Bloom Night by.

“The best photograph I have ever took!”

Can you walk me through your instructions and how you got results?

Karen Wright: It is so wonderful to hear that feedback, thank you. I really love to share tips and tricks that I have learned from experience and from other photographers.

Over the years when I have attended Bloom Night, I noticed that when inexperienced photographers – some who didn’t even know how to use their cell phone camera – tried to capture the beauty they saw in front of them, they often were either satisfied with what they got – a washed out flower surrounded by a metal cage – or frustrated that they couldn’t get a picture like they had seen professionals take. The images were the result of doing what many commonly did: Aim straight at the flower with the camera’s automatic flash on. When I offered to hold my light for them, they were thrilled at the difference it made.

So one year during Bloom Night, I decided that instead of getting pictures for myself of the various flowers, I would stay at one bloom with my constant LED light to help others get better pictures. I gave them three simple tips to improve their images:

  1. Use off-camera lighting: Turn off your on-camera flash and light the flower from above or to the side (with a flash, flashlight or LED light), and only light what you want to see in your picture.
  2. Check the background – Avoid anything directly in the background of the flower (so you will get the white flower on a black background).
  3. Bring your camera parallel to the flower (rather than shooting straight on or down). This will help you see the details of the stamen rising above the petals. Of course you can move around the flower for different perspectives.

I also taught a couple of classes for Tohono Chul on “Capturing the Queen” that went into more detail on camera settings.

JS: Can you share your motivation? – Volunteering to be out in the hot desert all night long interacting and working with hundreds of people. All the while, sacrificing your own creative endeavors during that special night – Were you able to get any images for yourself?

KW: I really enjoy sharing the Queen with others – the wonder of her change from a dead stick into one of the most beautiful cactus flowers, to the mystical reasons of why the plants tend to bloom all at once.

Most of the time, I am able to get some of my own pictures, but if I am volunteering at Bloom Night, I am usually helping others get good pictures by holding a light or giving them some guidance. Of course, many who already know how to photograph the Queen are happy to be left alone.

One year, after swearing that I had plenty of cereus pictures, I went to Bloom Night to “just take a look”. Well, several hours later, I was closing down the place at midnight and ended up stopping by a neighbor’s on the way home to photograph their Queen in their driveway.

JS: How long have you been photographing the Queen? What attracted you to her?

KW: I’m not really sure, but probably as long as Tohono Chul has had a Bloom Night. This is where I was first introduced to the Queen. I loved the mystique of coming to Tohono Chul after dark and seeing these beautiful flowers emerge over a few hours.

JS: What have you learned about the plant? And, in the process, what have you learned about photography?

KW: With my own observations, reading and talking with others, I have learned so much about the Peniocereus greggii, most of which is included in my book. I can now tell just by looking at a bud if it will be ready to bloom that night.

For the photography, I’ve learned to keep it simple. I’ve learned which camera settings to use for the desired effect and usually just use a constant light.

JS: I see so many images of the Queen. During and after each Bloom Night people are sharing so many images, sometimes hundreds of them. I love how everybody becomes a photographer on that night. You cannot help but take an image of what is in front of you – it is magical. Even cooler than that, there are so many photographers that return every year– the experience never gets old for them– they are super engaged – each one going after their very own thing. Some have the latest, greatest I-phone or high resolution camera with lenses and lights – what kind of gear do you work with? What is the thing you are after on that night?

KW: Since I have taken so many cereus photographs, I want to capture the unique qualities of the bloom I am seeing, or to try a different lighting technique or style.

As for equipment, in the past I used my Canon 6D, usually with a 24-105 lens. I started with a single flashlight then added a second one after another photographer shared his tip of backlighting the blooms. We also experimented with colored gels over the lights to get different effects. Now, you can do all that with an app on your phone!

I love meeting other photographers on these nights and sharing lighting tips or even holding lights for each other. One year I met a photographer who was struggling with getting a good image of a bloom with his flash on the camera. He also had a Canon camera, so I lent him my flash cable and held the flash above the flower as he took the shot. Two years later, I saw him again during Bloom Night and he couldn’t thank me enough, as he claimed that was the best shot he ever got of the flower!

The best equipment I bought for photographing the blooms was an LED video light. It allowed me to see what effect the light was making so I could previsualize my image. It also had the unintended effect of making me the Pied Piper of Bloom Night. When people saw that light, they followed me around so they could benefit from the light and get great shots, too!

I am now using Fuji mirrorless cameras (X-T2 or X-T4); they are lighter weight and easier to use with one hand as I hold the light with the other. I tried to keep it simple with a 35mm lens (50mm equivalent). But I also wanted to get a time-lapse of it opening, so I had a second camera set up with a flash and took images about every 5-10 minutes. I also took some images with a macro extension tube added to the lens to get some dreamy, soft close up images.

My full set up and settings are reviewed in a blog post on my website:—tips-to-create-beautiful-images-of-the-night-blooming-cereus

JS: I remember the first time you showed me the images you had of the Queen – they had dreamy quality that captured the mystery of the plant and its bloom. It was clear to me that with the abundance and variety of images you have taken – you really know your subject. How did you get to know the Queen? How well do you know Queen?

KW: I got to know the Queen by studying the details and differences that each flower exhibits. I am fascinated by the variety of the blooms – the shapes of the leaves, the colors of the outer sepals, and even the scents.

I am also very curious, so I have talked with the Tohono Chul groundskeepers and friends with much more botanical knowledge than me to learn about the variety of cereus and other cacti. I have also attended several classes for Tohono Chul volunteers. I’m always learning something new and amazing about these plants.

JS: Your work has been part of the Tohono Chul exhibition Queen of the Night past three years – with each exhibition you have portrayed the Queen at various stages of blooming. For you, what is the most interesting stage?

KW: Honestly, I love to watch the bloom as it opens over several hours, transforming from a bud to a crown of stamen above the white petals. It is such a magical process – I am amazed every time I see it.

Once the flower is open, I like to experiment with moving the light around and getting different vantage points or details of the flowers, sometimes lighting from behind to see the luminescence of the petals or side lighting to highlight the shape and form of the blossom.

JS: You have your own Peniocereus greggii at your house. When it blooms does it coincide with the plant at Tohono Chul? Is your Queen the model for your book?

KW: I have two Peniocereus greggii plants, both of which seem to bloom the same time or within a week of Tohono Chul’s.

My newest cereus, which I bought a couple of years ago at Tohono Chul as a fairly mature plant, bloomed last year. I almost missed it, since I was out of town. Thankfully, I made it home the night it bloomed, and was able to take pictures to include in my book.

The plant that I have had the longest, which turned 5 this year, was given to me by my friend, Debra, who is a docent at Tohono Chul. It was a gift when I was recovering from cancer surgery. This year I was 5-years cancer free, and my wonderful cereus, which I have named “Hope”, bloomed for the first time. The significance was not lost on me.  

JS: Your book Queen of the Night: A Rare Beauty is wonderful – How did that come about?

KW: I have taken many pictures of the Queen over the years and have absorbed a lot of information about it from the staff and docents at Tohono Chul. As I helped visitors photograph the blooms, I also enjoyed teaching them what I had learned.

I discovered that there were no books showing the life span of the bloom paired with photographs. Linda Wolfe, Director of Retail for Tohono Chul, was very interested in having such a book to help showcase the park’s iconic image.

I started compiling the images that I had, and noted the ones that I needed to fill in the bloom’s story. I took additional images at Tohono Chul as their cereus developed buds, and at other locations around town. When my cereus bloomed, I photographed its full cycle, including turning to fruit.

I wanted the images to speak for themselves, so I kept the text spare, but informative. I included the Tohono O’odham story of “Old Mother Whitehead” and tips on how to know when the bud is ready to bloom.

After sending my book idea to several publishers, I decided to work with Steve Jones at Arizona Lithographers. He was very helpful in guiding me to develop and finalize my book and became a fan of my work.

The book was met with very positive responses. It has been picked up by several bookstores and gardens around the state, including Tohono Chul, Tucson Botanical Gardens, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Boyce Thompson Arboretum. In a recent review in AZ Daily Star, Christine Wald-Hopkins declared that my “close-ups of this remarkable flower – iridescent, waxy white against a glossy black background – are exquisite.”

JS: You had Tucson based artist and Tohono Chul favorite, Susan Libby contribute a drawing of a hawk moth. It added something different, extremely subtle, her painting with your photography. A very nice touch. Did the hawk moth prove too difficult, too elusive to photograph?

KW: For me, getting a picture of the hawk moth on the cereus seems to be my Holy Grail. The only photo I have of a hawk moth is blurry!

One year as I was photographing the cereus during Bloom Night, a hawk moth landed on the flower right in front of me. I was excited to witness it, but unfortunately, the only light I was using to photograph the flower was a small flashlight, which didn’t have enough power to freeze the motion of the wings. I was thrilled to experience the close encounter, but very disappointed in “the one that got away”.

I wanted to include the hawk moth in my book, so I asked Susan Libby to paint one for me. It’s so realistic, that many didn’t realize it was not a photograph!

JS: Did you work with anyone else in creating it?

KW: I talked with several staff at Tohono Chul, including Lee Mason, Paul Hannan, and Leith Young, to get their insight into the growth of the bloom and tips on how to tell when it is ready to bloom. I also verified my observations with them to come to consensus on the text.   

JS:  A few years ago you had three photographs in the Arizona Otherworldly exhibition that were fantastic, and again very dreamy – peaceful yet suspenseful – nighttime images of the desert. How did you get into photographing at night?

KW: I originally got interested in photographing the Milky Way when I saw a presentation by Sean Parker, a wonderful local photographer. I later took a small-group class with him that introduced me to night photography and chasing the Milky Way at all hours of the night (that first class started at 11 pm and I got home around 3 am). I was amazed that I could see the Milky Way with my naked eye, and soon learned its seasons and where best to photograph it.

I joined a local group of photographers, the Tucson Milky Way Chasers, who get together to photograph and share tips in taking and processing the images. I have met many wonderful friends in this group and am constantly inspired by the very talented photographers in Tucson.

Most of these same photographers are also in the Tucson Storm Chasers group. Photographing the Milky Way can be calming and contemplative, as you wait in the dark in the desert for several hours watching the Milky Way rise in the sky. Storm chasing is the opposite: a frenetic adrenaline rush as you chase the ever-changing storms and cheer the capture of an epic bolt. The awe of witnessing nature as the arch of the Milky Way reveals itself or storms develop before you is equally amazing.

JS: Have you done more work along those lines? More work with the landscape? More work photographing at night?

KW: Some of my favorite recent images have been landscapes or desert scenes at night. The challenge is in finding a new location or unique composition. I’ve been experimenting with light painting the foreground (sometimes with the aid of other photographers) or keeping it simple with silhouettes.

JS: How much do you do “in camera”? How much do edit on the computer? Which editing program do you use?

KW: I try to get the best exposure and composition in camera, but of course, the image can be enhanced with post-processing. I use Adobe Light Room or Adobe Bridge to initially process the raw files, then Adobe Photoshop to finalize any touch ups. Milky Way images take more processing than others, but I usually make only minimal changes to my cereus images.

JS: Does the camera ever get in the way – or is it part of you?

KW: My husband would tell you that it is welded to my hand! My photographer friends understand when we get the itch to take a picture – it’s hard to see a beautiful scene and not capture it, to share it with others. Sometimes, I have to slow down and enjoy the beautiful sunset without photographing it, knowing that there will be another one.

JS: Are there any other projects you are working on?

KW: I was proud to be asked to participate in a project last fall titled “Don’t Look Away” which honored the grace of aging. These portraits of several elders at St. Luke’s Home highlighted their beauty, wisdom and contributions to their community.

As a photographer and former RN, I have combined my passion and skills as the Tucson Area Coordinator for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Volunteer photographers in this non-profit organization provide the gift of remembrance portraits to parents experiencing the death of a baby (

In my portrait photography, I also celebrate the uniqueness of each individual. I often use similar lighting techniques as with the flowers, a single soft light to highlight person in their environment.

Upcoming Projects: I would like to explore video to tell personal short stories or explore life stories of others.

JS: Where can we see more of your work?

KW: I currently have two images, “Cereously Beautiful” and “The Sky’s the Limit”, on display at the Shemer Art Center in Phoenix as part of their Garden Musings virtual exhibition, which has been extended to July 16th.


“Whether photographing in distant lands or in the desert around me, I love to focus on the small details: a single light highlighting an elusive bloom, the contrast of colors in nature or the simple beauty of a small boy’s smile.”

My image of “Ruby” is on the cover of the current 2020 Tohono Chul calendar. My image “Sunset Blossoms” will be included in Arizona Lithographer’s 2021 calendar. 

Karen’s artwork has been exhibited at the Tucson Museum of Art, De Grazia Gallery in the Sun Little Gallery, Tucson Botanical Gardens Porter Hall Gallery, and Tohono Chul.

I have regularly participated in the SAACA La Encantada Fine Art Show each January and the Art in the Garden shows each March and December, which includes metal prints, giclees, archival pigment prints, and pendants featuring my images.

Several of my Night Blooming Cereus images will be included in Tohono Chul’s Queen of the Night virtual exhibition. In addition to my book, pendants and cards with my photographs are available at Tohono Chul’s gift shops.




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