© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

This Kansas City photographer makes magic on her driveway with frozen flowers

Taking a peek at what the camera is capturing, photographer Susan Pfannmuller looks at the back of her camera.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Photographer Susan Pfannmuller buys a lot of flowers — but she doesn't put the bouquets in vases. Instead, she freezes them in containers of water to create stunning images.

Unexpected bubbles, swirls of color, and a block of frozen flowers — it's all art to Susan Pfannmuller.

Photographer Susan Pfannmuller buys a lot of roses, chrysanthemums and gladiolus from the local florist. Then, she takes them home and freezes them in storage containers of water.

The peculiar practice is all part of Pfannmuller's passion project: photographing the flowers frozen in a 5-pound block of ice. After five years, she's made hundreds of the images, which fill her Instagram feed.

"I'm always trying to look for different kinds of flowers without spending a fortune because I don't grow my own," Pfannmuller says.

"My mom was was a great gardener," she says. "I just didn't get that gene."

On a recent day in August, Pfannmuller worked with several peach-colored gladiolus, frozen into a plastic container. When the water was still liquid, she wired their stems to the top of the container so they wouldn't move.

Small adjustments make a big difference for photographer Susan Pfannmuller. She twists the block of ice to get just the right angle.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Small adjustments make a big difference for Pfannmuller. She twists the block of ice to get just the right angle.

Now, Pfannmuller carries the container to the kitchen sink to run cool water over it. As the ice begins to melt, the block is released.

Her freezer isn't big — just the standard freezer-over-refrigerator setup — but Pfannmuller has room for several blocks of ice, with a little space left for ice cream.

Once everything's ready, she hauls the giant ice cube outside to a worktable in her driveway, where she's set up a backdrop. In the late-summer heat, the steady drip of ice melting starts immediately. Its sound mingles with the buzzing of emerging cicadas.

Pfannmuller says she's always a little surprised when she looks through her viewfinder.

"I like that ... I can't predict what is going to happen," Pfannmuller says. "It allows you to be creative. It gives you parameters, but there's a randomness that's kind of exciting."

There are unexpected bubbles, swirls of color and always the beauty of flowers suspended in ice.

With the sun creeping overhead, Pfannmuller places a block of ice embedded with gladiolus on her worktable.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
With the sun creeping overhead, Pfannmuller places a block of ice, with gladiolus embedded, on her worktable.

Over the years, she's learned that certain flowers freeze better than others — some lose their shape and appear mushy, while others lose their vibrant color.

Each time she shoots, Pfannmuller spends several hours in her improvised outdoor studio, experimenting with light, colored backgrounds, and making tiny adjustments to find just the right angle. Reflections in the ice crystals are a constant challenge, she says.

"It's an exercise in minutia," she says. "If you stand here, there's a reflection. But if you come over here, it disappears."

Once Pfannmuller finds an angle she likes, she shoots multiple photographs, methodically changing the focus with each frame. Later, she'll stack the images in Photoshop to create a perfectly-focused picture. Each one is the result of about 70 different images of the same composition.

"Sometimes I'm done, and I've just had it — but the flowers aren't done," Pfannmuller explains. "So I will put them back in the container and refreeze them."

When Pfannmuller isn't photographing frozen flowers in her front yard, she's a freelance photojournalist in Kansas City. She covers all kinds of stories, including breaking news, neighborhood festivals and more. It's face-paced work, and frequently high-pressure.

"People always told me that I needed a personal project," Pfannmuller says. "I didn't really know what that meant as a photojournalist. I think they wanted me to go to some exotic place, but that's just not me."

Once she started working with flowers, Pfannmuller was hooked.

She says, with flowers, she works when she wants, and there are no deadlines. Despite the Midwest's unpredictable weather, exotic flowers are always available, and Pfannmuller is mostly able to work year-round.

"I'll go out when it's hot, but not when it was 110," she says. "There's no point in me working out there and being miserable. It's like, nobody's waiting for these photos."

Wrapping up her work for the morning, Pfannmuller says she's still pleased with the way the gladiolus looks.

Back in the freezer they go, she says, so they're ready for their next photoshoot in the driveway.

Glacial gladiolus suspended in ice.
Susan Pfannmuller
Susan Pfannmuller
Glacial gladiolus suspended in ice.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.