A Photographer’s Response to Rory Stuart by Charles Hawes

December 14, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

I was hoping we might hear from photographers in response to Rory Stuart’s piece, and we did –  and this one was clearly too long to go in the ‘comments’. This discussion clearly moves the ball next into the garden owner’s and the (current) garden editors’ courts. The enormous response we got from the last piece certainly indicates wide, thoughtful interest in this issue.

Anne Wareham, editor

Veddw front garden copyright Charles Hawes

A sexed up picture of the front garden, Veddw, (not sure about that birdbath, though...) (© Charles Hawes)

A Photographer’s Response to Rory Stuart, by Charles Hawes

I have spent around 12 years chasing the pages of those glossy magazines to find a home for the type of  garden photographs that Rory Stuart refers to (from henceforth I hope he will not object to my referring to him as “Rory,” as I consider him a friend). And I agree with pretty well everything that he says here, though I think I have a slightly different perspective.

I can’t imagine how those that write about gardens keep going , when it is so clear that their words are really just padding to fill the gaps between the photographs.  The garden “stories” we read are utterly formulaic and bland, finishing invariably with some cliché about the gardens’ loveliness.  We (the writers and the photographers) try and persuade ourselves that at least we are giving those creators of the gardens a warm glow of satisfaction for seeing their garden in print, looking, of course at its best (well, to be truthful, far better than its best).  And of course we get a fee for our labours. We all have a living to make.

But I believe we are short changing the garden owners. No it’s worse than this, I think this universal approach to gardens by the media insults the gardeners and devalues their gardens, because we are totally failing to take them seriously.

As a photographer of a garden I probably spend about ten times the amount of time looking at a garden than the average visitor. A proper “shoot” will usually involve a lengthy walk around with the owner. Then I will photograph from late in the afternoon until dusk and then rise before dawn to get the first light and then there could be several more hours walking round and photographing in the morning.  And if the light is not satisfactory, a return visit may be called for.

I then spend hours looking at every picture on my computer (and I do think that this is, in some sense at least, a further study of the garden), making selections and adjustments, and as Rory suggests, sometimes removing minor imperfections in a scene. (Some of my colleagues will remove TV aerials or telephone wires from a scene but I do not go this far for my own, nevertheless idealised, images).

I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I for one believe that I have a really good eye and I believe that over the years I have developed a real ability to see some gardens’ failure to make the most of their situation, or where a view might be improved by changes to existing hedges or additions of new ones. Or where a planting scheme can be improved. Or where the garden is getting over-full of ornament.  Most people making a garden would, I believe, both be interested in and could well find that they would benefit from my feedback.

But I would never volunteer this perspective and I am never asked for it.  I don’t volunteer my opinions for fear of offending my host who may have provided me with a bed and a meal. I might also risk prejudicing their cooperation in the essential task that follows my visit of identifying the names of plants for my captions. And actually by the time I have completed the photographic task I am usually exhausted and ready to go and have a rest.

Cornfield Garden, Veddw, copyright Charles Hawes

Isn’t it embarrassing? (© Charles Hawes)

But why do garden owners never ask what writers or photographers think about what they have been looking at? I believe that anxiety is at the heart of it.  Rory touches on this when he refers to the classic “you should have been here last week”  syndrome.  Garden owners want their gardens to be seen at their best and are hungry for praise. Indeed I don’t think that I am totally off the wall if I suggest that this need for praise is almost addictive.  Because the garden can never be praised enough and yet such praise never satisfies the owner. Why?  Because it is meaningless, empty, without sustenance. It is like feeding someone pure sugar.

Actually taking a garden seriously and really discussing a garden with its creator is completely counter cultural. Doing so raises the anxiety of both the person sharing their views and that of the person hearing them. It is totally fraught. But such a process of taking a garden seriously also offers the possibility of the creators of gardens receiving a far more satisfying experience from garden writers and photographers. They could see their garden with fresh eyes. It offers, too, the possibility of entering into a “grown up” relationship between the makers of gardens and the garden media. At the moment it feels to me that all the garden media are doing is handing out sweeties.

How could we break this unsatisfying and pointless process?  It could start by magazines commissioning proper garden “reviews” with the commissioning editor asking their writer and the photographer to work together in presenting a more “real” view of the garden with a rather more analytic than descriptive approach. Analytic does not mean academic –  think of book and theatre reviews. There is one journal which I think ought to take this on- the journal of the RHS, “The Garden”. This is a serious journal with a massive readership; it is far time it took its writing about gardens more seriously. If they were to lead I think others would follow.

But I also think that there is scope here for the book publishing industry to break the mould and offer us a book that takes gardens seriously by taking such an approach. This would truly be ground breaking. I can feel a proposal letter coming on. Watch this space.

Charles Hawes website and Photographs with GAP

Charles Hawes, photographer copyright Anne Wareham




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