Are Garden Photographs Art? by Charles Hawes

June 5, 2009

in Articles, General Interest

This was originally part of an invited contribution to a debate at ‘Vista’ about the merits of different garden media. A valuable contribution for a garden photographer to ideas about the current flaws in garden photography.

Anne Wareham, editor

Tim Richardson at Vista, April 2009 said that garden photographers are only interested in showing gardens at their best.

Quite so. I do feel a compulsion to make the pictures I take as pleasing to the eye as possible. But I lay the blame for this idealisation of the garden at the foot of the publishers and ultimately at the nature of the industry in which both garden writers and photographers inhabit. And that is the entertainment industry.

Our words and pictures are destined for the pages of magazines and books which are not interested in “the truth” about gardens. We all know that what editors believe that their readers want to be shown “lovely gardens”  and to have an undemanding story accompanying the “inspirational” pictures which invariably tells the story of how the garden came to be made. And we also know that in this collusion of deception that writers and photographers of gardens enter into, it is the photograph that speaks loudest.

For the most part, it is the photographs which determine whether the writer even gets a job in the first place.  Deception is not too strong a word, for the truth is that we all know that the gardens filling the pages of the books and magazines are nowhere near as good as they are made out to be. Tim has a point that writers are in a better position to be more objective than photographers, but again, the truth is that they very seldom are.

The mild and generally veiled words of criticism of gardens in the popular press are few and far between. Indeed in his recent review of the book that I photographed, “Discovering Welsh Gardens,” Sir Roy Strong declared in his excitement about Stephen Anderton’s writing that “It’s glorious to have a writer who doesn’t hesitate to criticise”. No, if you want to find an emergent critique of gardens and to find writing which is truly seeking to tackle the truth about gardens, the only place worth spending your time is in the pages of the thinkinGardens website.

But I have to confess that as far as developing a critique of gardens is concerned, photography hasn’t even got under way. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, as we know, no magazine or book publisher is going to be interested in pictures of gardens that do not look “gorgeous”. (Having said that, its still amazes me how much poor quality photography still gets published). So why would garden photographers, who are faced with frozen or even slashed fees for their pictures, start taking photographs that they know no one will publish? Of course garden owners would not want a photographer to take a “warts and all” set of pictures of their garden. Garden owners want their garden flattered.

But just because neither garden owners nor the press are interested in anything other than the idealisation of gardens, does that mean that there is no future for the development of a photographic critique of gardens? Photographers who aspire to have their work taken seriously have always used their “art” to comment on, interpret and above all to say something back to us about our environment and society. As things stand garden photography does not deserve to be taken very seriously, should certainly not be considered to be “Art”, because, quite simply, it has found nothing to say other than “everything in the garden is lovely”.

I wonder what Martin Parr would come up with if he were to photograph gardens. Whatever it would be, you can bet your life he would not produce work that would sit comfortably inthe pages of contemporary garden magazines.

If we are to take gardens seriously then we need, alongside a critical approach to writing about gardens, an approach to photographing them which helps to illustrate what does not work well in a garden as well as what succeeds. Writers and photographers need to work together and the photography of gardens needs to find a voice.

Charles Hawes – member of the Garden Photographers Association

Charles Hawes’ photographic portfolio GAP Photos

Veddw House Garden website

Charles Hawes portrait copyright Anne Wareham

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