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

Ahem!

 

 

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Franklin April 24, 2012 at 8:56 pm

What’s interesting about this and the accompanying discussion is that garden photography by and large seems to be regarded as a means to support or substantiate a horticultural view of gardens, namely photographs should highlight features and planting schemes. The idealisation of gardens is thus regarded as the function of garden photography, and this is certainly the case in the beautiful, misty-morninged cliches we see in the magazines.

Here’s an alternative approach, and one of a number of projects on which I am working; it questions both what we should call a garden and how it should be photographed.

http://jpgmag.com/stories/17406

Overall, I think there is little artistic innovation in garden photography. Cliches are rewarded in the competitions and the photographic / garden media is full of articles on how to take yet more cliched images of misty mornings in the garden. There are few of what one might call “art” photographers working in the medium of garden photography – Lynn Geesaman and Beth Dow being rare examples of true artists in the genre.

In Rory’s forum I posted a desire to start an artistic collective devoted to artistic exploration of gardens. Happy to welcome collaborators.

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Emmon January 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Hi John – This is so illuminating! I’m not a gardener, so I think a bit differently about garden photos. To me, a photo is its own reality — even the most accurate one still crops out most of our visual field, , flattens it to two dimensions, and changes shadows and focuses into something different than what we’d see with our eyes. What a photographer like Charles chooses to put into a photo frame, and how he works with it, I believe, comes from his eyes and heart. I consider his photos works of art. A better documentation? Perhaps a wide-angled video recording panning around and showing different parts of the garden in bright light would be more accurate (at least it would crop out less!)

Thanks for indulging me in this discussion. I love photos and appreciate hearing your view of them and gardening! Best! Emmon

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Emmon January 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Hi John – I find your distinction above between a photograph of reality versus an image that is tweaked away from reality really fascinating. Stepping away from the subject of gardening for a moment, I’m curious where you’d place the work of someone like Ansel Adams. I recall him being quoted as doing most of his work in the dark room, and some of his photos have a slightly unreal quality to me. (Often a sky seems a bit darker than I think it could actually be, and I assume he played with contrasts and lighting in his darkroom to achieve an artistic effect.) Thinking about your distinction, I’d guess I’d consider at least some of his works in a region somewhere between works of art and pure “true to reality” photographs. Thoughts?

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John Kigndon January 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm

My approach is simply that the definition a photograph is an image recorded by a camera. Anything else is not a photograph.

Adams used filters and the like but, essentially, the image was still captured by a camera. (At one point in his career, I believe, he was part of a group that adopted a far narrower definition of photography which did not allow even filters etc.) Lightening or darkening the image in the dark room does not essentially change that image – just makes it easier to see perhaps or removes some blemish like red-eye. What I object to is when some element in the shot is Photoshopped out or a red plant is changed to yellow to make it fit the shot better or even (as Charles Hawes has demonstated) plants are Photoshopped into a picture.

Adams did not make such changes to his photos, which would, in any event, have been far more painstaking to make in the pre-digital age. And as he was largely shooting in monochrome, colour changes didn’t really matter. He simply changed shades, used red filters to darken the sky and so on. No different from the use of an overlay of yellow acetate to make a photocopy of a faint image much clearer.

In his work you are still seeing the art of the photographer rather than the skill of a software manipulator.

But at the end of the day, I’m a gardener, not a photographer.

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Emmon March 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Hi John – I’ve been thinking about our discussion over the past month, as I’ve been taking garden photos. Our eyes can see amazing details in things near and far, dark or bright, all at once, and our peripheral vision allows us to see everything in context. I just think a photo is so totally different — it’s a cropped fragment of reality, and the person with the camera must decide how to frame it, how low or high, near or far, to stand, which direction to shoot from given the lighting, what exposure and focal length to use, etc. — and probably most important: what to leave out. Can this be objective? It can be a goal — as it is for musicians who try to play a Beethoven sonata “exactly as written” — but in the end, I think most photographers want to a “great shot”. That means a great composition that somehow works on its own terms.

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John Kingdon March 26, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Hi Emmon – yes, a photo is a “point in time”. Your musical analogy is a good one. The conductor will put his interpretation on it, add a crescendo here or there, maybe increase the number of first violins, up or down the tempo.
But he doesn’t actually change what the composer wrote, the notes are the same.

With photography, the photographer’s skill is to capture that wonderful point in time; to frame a shot in such a way as to make the garden sing to you through that photo. Such is skill and this, I think, is what you aim for. The accents, crescendosand tempo changes become the exposure, the focal length, indeed the choice of filter. And the result is what I like to see.

What I still don’t like is the result of computer software being applied to that image. The beauty which you capture having thought carefully about the shot you are going to take is diminished if you then edit out the blemishes. The result is not so much the expression of the photographer’s skill and experience but, rather, of his/her mastery of IT and choice of software. Nature is never perfect and is all the better for that imperfection. That tiny bit of blurring where a flower head has moved in the breeze just as you press the shutter button adds vibrance to the shot.

Your skill is in the interpretation of the scene in front of you, exactly as written by nature.

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donnacanadensis December 15, 2011 at 3:29 am

I, a neophyte and naive gardener on the west coast of Canada, find this discussion immensly interesting. (thank you Anne and Twitter, for leading me to ThinkingGardener). I think there is room in gardening publications for both the garden “porn” and the serious stuff. Everyone should be able to make a living. I second Charles Hawes’ suggestion that “The Garden” take the lead. Who knows, others may follow.

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Sara Manela December 14, 2011 at 8:47 pm

“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.”

Yes! This is it, exactly. But of course for that, you need garden creators to see their works as art, and take them seriously as well.

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John Kingdon December 14, 2011 at 7:57 pm

I’m going to question what seems to me to be the basic assumption in both this article and that to which it replies, namely that the purpose of garden photography and garden writing is to pander to the auto-erotic desires of the garden owner and to appeal to other garden photographers and writers in some self perpetuating flurry of false perfection and mutual praise.

When a photographer edits a photo, maybe photoshopping out that little brown patch on a flower, or sexing up the image in some way not only does the photo cease to be a representation of nature, which after all is what gardening is all about, but, arguably, breaches the Trades Descriptions Act by conveying the impression that all is perfect when all is not. We may be drawn to visit the garden as a result of that photograph and will be let down when what we find is something else.

We can make up our minds about the words in an article and it will soon become apparent whether they are sycophantic gibberings or a genuine attempt to describe what is, as it is. But we assume that the camera never lies. We forget the person using it. If there’s blanket weed in the pond, include it in the photo of the pond; in itself blanket weed is not ugly, just a flaming nuisance to the person maintaining the pond.

If garden writing/photography is aimed at its rightful audience – the great army of keen amateur gardeners who will give life to any garden open to the public, even if only on Sunday afternoons – then both the writing and the photography should be honest. And the garden owner needs to understand and accept this. Trying to make a garden what it is not either by words or edited photographs actually insults the gardener. It says “People won’t go for what you’ve done so we’ve had to make it better.”

If author or photographer sex things up, this sculduggery will soon become very public; that’s what the internet is there for!

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Kari December 15, 2011 at 12:12 am

John, I think you misunderstood my comment. I was NOT advocating for Photoshop, but pointing out the potential for photographers to give feed back to the garden’s owners/designers. A photographer may “see” more of the garden, because of what they see through his/her lens. (I don’t imagine many designers lying on their backs to get just the right light or back round, but they might notice and document, a combination or contrast underplayed by the designer.) I agree that the photographer’s job is to capture the garden as it is … but, in it’s best light.

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John Kingdon December 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

Kari, I wasn’t replying to your comment but on the original article.

But when you say, in your original comment that “Great photographers can make the best of a garden; but unless they Photoshop out the wires, or put in a bush (where the composition really calls for one) ….” you hit the nail on the head.

The edited photo then becomes the work of art, rather than the garden it depicts, for it no longer depicts reality.

Indeed, one may question whether the image then meets the definition of “photograph” as it is no longer an image recorded by a camera but an image made by a person.

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Kari December 14, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Charles (and Anne) The idea of the photographer evaluating a garden not his/her own “sounds” presumptuous … (The garden designer has after all, already done all the creating – *this is where the internet needs a font for sarcasm …) Photographers are faced with the difficulty of objectively trying to capture the essence of what he/she sees through only the view finder. The camera is the great equalizer. Great photographers can make the best of a garden; but unless they Photoshop out the wires, or put in a bush (where the composition really calls for one) I think it rarely occurs to gardeners to ask for feedback from someone who is there to document, or make pretty … their gardens.

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