Garden Photographs – some problems, by Rory Stuart

November 28, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

Many of us have got great reservations about how gardens are represented in the garden media. Awards are given to gardens on the basis of pictures of them and the common description of garden magazines as ‘garden porn’ tells its own story. It would be very interesting to hear the response of garden photographers and magazine editors to this piece and I hope we’ll get lucky.

Anne Wareham, editor

the bee picture copyright Anne Wareham

the bee picture (I’m told it’s actually a hoverfly)

Glamorous garden photographs sell magazines, they say, but how much do they tell us about gardens? Editors buy sets of beautiful images, preferably of a garden that has not been photographed before, and then find a writer to fill in the number of words the lay-out of the magazine requires.

Might it not be better to start by finding an interesting garden and then deciding how best to present it – at one season, or with a sequence of images to show how the garden changes (more expensive, of course, as the photographer must make many visits)? Then the editor might decide which elements of the composition should be highlighted in order to convey the special character of the garden, and,  finally, whether these elements would be better conveyed with words or with photos?

In short, might it not be better to pay more attention to the personality of the garden and its special atmosphere. This might be a long process but it would result in more interesting articles, not the same tedious display of chocolate-box pretty images, together with some lists of plant names and quotations from the garden owner.

a flower copyright Anne Wareham

Then how many photos say anything, other, perhaps, than “isn’t this beautiful?” Too often the pictures are full of brilliant colour, like advertisements that are designed to catch the eye, but convey nothing of the photographer’s own individual view of the garden. Professional photographers know what their editors want, and they serve it up again and again. Thus few garden photos convey a personal point of view, so that we miss any sense of the photographer’s engagement with the garden, the experience he or she had there.

And then much of the eye-candy that magazines at present offer their readers are attractive pictures taken in a garden, not of a garden; typical of this kind are the close-up’s of flowers with a bee collecting pollen, or a drop of dew clinging to a petal. These may be beautiful images but they tell us nothing about the garden in which the picture was shot.

the drip pic

the drip pic

Great photos capture a moment – the naked, screaming girl escaping the napalm in Vietnam, and  the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, for example, – but the caught image implies much more than it shows, so that it becomes a kind of metaphor for a whole range of experience. Garden photos rarely rise to this level. Necessarily they fail to convey the sense of process in a garden, the fragile impermanence of what makes the garden beautiful; they capture a single moment of great beauty and any hint of imperfection, rot in the fruit or the yellowing of a leaf, can be airbrushed away in Photoshop or Picasa.

They make a garden seem as static as a painting, and equally under total human control. Yet we gardeners know it is precisely because the beauty of our work of art is ephemeral, and not entirely the product of our cleverness, that we prize it so much; were it not so, all our grass would be Astroturf and all our flowers plastic. Gardens are always hymns to time, and gardeners the leading choristers – “if only you had been here last week”, or “come again next week and they’ll all be out.”

If photos can do little to capture the sense of process in a garden, they usually also fail to capture the magic of being in a special kind of three-dimensional place. By concentrating, as they must, on the evidence available to the eye alone, they ignore that of the other senses – the birdsong, the smell of freshly-mown grass, the bounce of compacted beech leaves under the visitor’s feet; it is left to the writer to point out these features of the garden experience, but how many people read the words?  The garden is too often presented as a series of flat pictures, an immaculate herbaceous border is often the subject, so the reader experiences none of the drama a visit might offer us – the choice of paths, the contrasts of light and shade, the unfolding sense of excitement as one space leads on to another, each differently proportioned and differently planted.

flower copyright Anne Wareham

another pretty flower….

Gardens are narratives, occupying space and time; they are not pictures at an exhibition. The idea of the garden as an outdoor room, which was once so common in garden writing, reinforced this idea of the garden as something static, with the flowers and shrubs making up the unchanging, external decor. What too many photos miss is the experience of the garden’s special character, the accumulation of impressions, above all the sense of place; maybe only words, and perhaps music, can convey this.

And why are there never people in garden photos, unless they are needed to give a sense of scale to the composition? It may be that people are too distracting; this is certainly so when they wear the bright, hard colours that are so inappropriate in a garden. But I suspect there are other reasons that people must be excluded from the magazine photo. Principally it is so that the viewer can “take possession” of the garden: it can seem theirs for the moment they are looking at the picture. It is always easier for magazine readers’ imaginations to project them into an un-peopled garden.

Japanese anemone copyright Anne Wareham

but does it tell you anything about the garden?

Does all this matter to the garden maker? I fear it does, because all these pretty garden photos seem to exercise a malign influence on those who are making gardens; too easily they forget they are place makers, the title ‘Capability Brown proudly gave himself, not exterior decorators.  The visitor can see this influence in many contemporary gardens which seem to be aimed only at pleasing the eye, particularly the eye of the visiting camera. Such gardens lack the atmosphere that is the essential quality of all the most memorable gardens; there is nothing of the sacred or the magical about them. And often there is little that is original, or expressive of the personality of the maker in the garden we are visiting; too often we seem to have seen it all before. We have – in glossy magazines.

Rory Stuart

Author of “Gardens of the World” and “What Are Gardens For?”, out September 2012 from Frances Lincoln.

(See also ‘Are garden photographs art? by Charles Hawes)

Rory Stuart portrait copyright Rory Stuart

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