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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Carl Franklin April 24, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I think garden photography, as a genre, is stuck in cliche. Magazines want flower porn or misty-morninged country cottages with sun shining through the trees, and this is the type of image that usually does well in competitions. The genre is dominated by a few photographers who regularly tell us through magazine articles how to take pictures exactly like they do. It’s just like landscape photography…a rock in front of a mountain at dawn with a 2ND filter etc etc etc. Beautiful cliches.

I’d like to start a collective of garden photographers devoted to pushing the artistic boundaries of the genre, avoiding cliched imagery and truly exploring the photographic possibilities of gardens. I’m thinking of a collective website and maybe a quarterly publication.

Give me a shout if you’re interested in collaborating.

Carl.franklin [at] yahoo.co.uk

Snark January 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm

I’m sure anybody whose garden is about to appear in a glossy magazine does a huge tidy up first.The amazing thing is how good the human eye is at editing the picture. I look at something and see the combination of wanted plants. Only when I get the camera do the weeds spring into view. Surely the slightly staged pictures are just doing this for us. On the other hand did you ever see an article about the garden in winter which was illustrated with pictures taken in a winter like this one ie with sagging brown vegetation and not a crisp frosted edge in sight.

Elspeth Briscoe December 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm

PS and I guarantee you’ll all hate this. But perhaps it’s the medium that’s at fault, not the photographers? A still photograph can clearly only capture one moment in time and space. But 4D virtual reality can look at the past present and future (and so can artistic timelapse videos to some extent.

Print magazine and the media itself are changing. And in my opinion developments in technology will be amazing for capturing and expressing gardens.

Come back to me in 10 years time..

Elspeth Briscoe December 14, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Ooh hello everyone! Loving this article and follow up. I actually agree with quite a bit of this article.

I have to say, as an outsider to the gardening industry, I have been quite startled by the similarity of the photography used in gardening publications over the last few years. This doesn’t mean it’s bad. Quite the opposite in fact. Much of it is beautiful. But there is a definite style. A sameness. I have been wondering for sometime why there are so few people in gardening pictures? To me a garden is an artistic product of the interaction between a human and land – and largely for the enjoyment of the humans. Yet no-one seems to want to include the humans in there? Either creating, or interacting with, or observing the garden. Weird. *note the overuse of the word ‘interactive’.* Ha – too much time in the world of geeks!

No I’m not from the gardening world – I’m an internet geek turned garden designer (see our virtual gardening school: http://www.my-garden-school.com – blatant plug). Perhaps I don’t yet look through the same lens as many of you. Maybe I never will. I am slowing beginning to understand a little bit more about gardening and, dare I say it, gardening people though!

Like this site. Thanks

Susan in the Pink Hat December 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm

An interesting side note, on the recent passing of Frank Cabot, I discovered that there is a DVD coming available of his remarkable garden, Quatre Vents, which is an interactive panoramic photographic tour. Think of those panoramic views on the RHS site of Chelsea show gardens, except you can move around the garden and look 360 degrees in any direction, including up and down. Also, they have gone back at different times during the season in the garden so you can see it at different times. Occasionally, there are closer photos of features, plants, and follies to inspect. Granted, it isn’t the same as visiting the place in person, but I feel that this approach to photographing a garden is as complete an experience as one can have through that medium. Here is a link for the site for those curious:

http://www.etpanorama.com/Cabot_Garden_demo/Cabot_Garden_Intro.html

elaine rickett December 5, 2011 at 11:54 am

As a garden blogger I find all of the above comments really interesting – from my point of view trying to convey my garden to my readers is a very difficult task – as there are millions of gardening blogs out there, it is hard to get an interesting take on the garden that will keep readers coming back for more. My photographic skills are pretty basic so I do use Picasa to help – I personally get bored seeing perfect close up shots of other peoples gardens, and when I feature my garden as a whole on my blog I get far more comments in response. The thread of this article has been very useful for me as to what other gardeners really want to see.

Pollies Daylilies December 5, 2011 at 11:09 am

All comments very thought provoking. As someone who sells almost exclusively one plant, (which incidentally is featured above, hurrah), single face shots are my bread and butter but they certainly don’t give any impression at all of the genuine plant or its habit and are only of real use for a sale catalogue. What I love to see when reading an article or seeing a programme on television is a real garden and a realistic one, acheivable, sustainable and a feast for the eye. I am sad to say that I think that a lot of this has been forgotten in the last few years. (From a very amateur photographer, but extremely keen gardener).

Sean Swallow December 5, 2011 at 8:05 am

I may be wrong but it might be the ‘find an interesting garden’ bit, with a ‘special atmosphere’, that presents a challenge to magazine editors.
So often the available materials and techniques in artistic representation come to dictate ideas. So, taking pictures of flowers with a camera is comparatively easy to creating a good image of space and form. Whilst I am fond of a flower, it is the latter that really shapes a garden and relates it to the place.
Great photography can of course apprehend space and even become a metaphor. Andreas Gursky’s photographs of the Rhine might show us a way to go. He uses photoshop, I am given to believe, which I don’t have a problem with if it helps to convey an idea (rather than solely be decorative).
I gave a talk last week on garden making I caused a little ruffle by my insisting that, like Watteau’s fete champetre, the beautiful garden or countryside ought not to be empty.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being decorative and some people are just very good at it; Abandoning decorative principles altogether is a form of garden making selfishness and we always ought to keep in mind how others might see our gardens. To its extreme though it is vacuous and we ought to be digging deeper all the time- into our culture and ourselves to make compelling and dramatic gardens. I suspect it is really down to us to give the photographers and writers something to think about.

Peter Higdon December 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm

As an amateur photographer who has spent the last three years trying to capture the pleasure of visiting a garden, I can wholeheartedly agree with Nancy that it is extremely difficult to achieve anything more than a competent representation at a single point of time let alone over a season. I am also clearly not the only person who feels that too many published images fail to do any better.

I believe a garden offers two major challenges to the photographer, which if not unique to the garden are certainly far more important in the garden than other areas of photography. Firstly, a garden is experienced in four dimensions. Only a minority of gardens are viewed from a single fixed viewpoint; normally the visitor walks through a garden building a mental image of the garden from a series of related images gained over time. This certainly cannot be captured in a single image, and is difficult to achieve with multiple images a way that is intelligible to the viewer. Secondly, gardens are very complex spaces and complexity does not photograph easily or well. The normal strategy adopted is to use some form of simplification; precapture using viewpoint, fog, snow etc; at point of capture using camera controls to provide a shallow depth of field; or post capture using Photoshop. Unfortunately, there is a limit to simplification that can be applied in a garden and still retain an image of the garden: an image of an isolated magnolia tree says nothing about the garden in which it stands.

Why do these gripes matter? Because without addressing them there can be no adequate expression of artistic response. How do you convey the joy derived from turning a corner on a garden path and being confronted by a delightful hidden garden without being able to depict the passage through the path in the first place? How do you criticise an aspect of garden planting if the object of the criticism is a lost in a maze of complexity?

Finally, returning to the original article, for a wannabe like me there is so very little available in the form of artistic response to gardens – the last time I searched Amazon I found five relevant titles all of which I have now read.

Nancy Andreasen December 3, 2011 at 10:40 pm

As one who has tried to capture the essence of her own garden through the seasons, in both words and pictures, I can testify that it is very difficult to do. My 120 page book on my garden contains photos, old journal entries, narrrative text, and poetry (both mine and that of others.) All of these add to the whole. A short magazine article clearly can only do so much. As to photos – I am not a good enough photographer to always get things right. Photoshop helps me edge my photo closer to the reality I actually saw. I see no harm in it. I believe that it is only when photos are “improved” to an artificial perfection that objection is warranted.

Nicki Jackson December 1, 2011 at 11:21 am

An interesting topic and stream of comments. I agree with Helen I do feel that photography in magazines can often be poor, it can leave people feeling (as Liz says) frustrated, depressed and jealous that they will never be in the ‘league’ of the owners of xyz garden. Photographs should encompass the spirit of the garden, make people want to visit, make them want to try something similar in their garden or simply inspire them to get out and have a go. Close ups are a ‘nice to have’ if used sparingly but what value are they to the reader? If we can see the plant as part of a planting scheme it would demonstrate how it works well.
Too often I find in magazines it’s all about people who clearly have acres of land, lots of time to spend in them…..and quite possibly a healthy garden budget too. What about the average person, in the average garden with an average budget? One of the threads above mentions showing a garden at various times of the year – I fully agree with this, it is all well and good showing it in full bloom, but does it actually work in autumn or the depths of winter? If not, why show it? As horticulturalists whether that be a gardener, designer or plant expert we are told time and time again that gardens are there for 12 months of the year and should provide all year interest. Come on, give us examples of theses amazing gardens, tell us what obstacles they came across and how they rectified it, if they still have problem areas, what they have tried and what are their plans for their ‘evolving’ garden after all nothing is perfect and nature never stands still.

Liz Dobbs December 1, 2011 at 10:05 am

Thought-proving article and comments. You asked for comments from gardening magazine editors, I was Editor of Gardens Monthly for several years so here are mine.
We used to look forward to looking at ‘garden picture sets’ in the office, a sneaky bit of plant porn in the afternoon with a cup of tea after a morning spent chasing PRs for cut out shots of lawmmowers or compost bags. But then we had to decide what was going where, as our budgets were known for being tight much time was spent worrying about many pages and what else was in the issue etc.
Questions we would consider:
INTEREST TO READER (on GM readers were after actionable ideas and inspiration particularly for small spaces – we were more about doingardens)
SEASONAL (the point of a monthly gardening magazine is to celebrate each month or herald it)
BIT OF A STORY challenges overcome, slopes, being widowed, clay soil, tight budget, shade, east winds, funds raised for charity, garden for grandchildren, wildlife etc
HOW IT FITS WITH REST OF ISSUE garden picture set provides a change of pace as you go through a magazine, perhaps a moment or two of calm, beauty and reflection between step by steps of tree planting and weeding. Is there a heading shot for a double page spread or one for a right hand page, is there space for heading and intro ie sky/grass.
The aim was to make the reader feel good after reading the feature – inspired, informed or curious but not jealous, frustrated or depressed which could be the case if everything is too perfect, there is a team of gardeners or there is not enough information about how things were achieved and plants named.
I agree lots of over-large close ups of plants are irritating, as Duncan Heather says we used to start with the overall shots first but a few close ups particularly if the plant is named or the caption is informative and if you ever flick through a magazine it is often these shots that make you pause and explore further.

Helen Tyrrell November 29, 2011 at 6:06 pm

As an addendum to my previous comment; as an amateur photographer, in my humble opinion photoshop is an absolute cheat, I may on an occasion have to crop a photograph to get rid of any extraneous image, but if the picture has been airbrushed or in any other way improved, it cannot, in any way show a true representation of the subject. I want to see the garden or plant in it’s natural form, flaws and all.

Sacha Hubbard November 30, 2011 at 12:37 am

Helen, I couldn’t agree more with you. Here, we now tend to look at the ‘pretty pictures’ with a jaundiced eye. This is NOT to say that all garden photography must focus on the weeds or the dying Wisteria but to acknowledge these things happen would make garden writing much, much more interesting. “Oh yes, we have a terrible problem with bittercress but we do x, y or z about it” is about gardening, not about hiding the problem in some kind of Nevernever Land. Why can’t the two live side by side in garden articles? Why must it be one or the other, I wonder?

Chiquita Barker November 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Dear Mr Heather,
Speaking as a chicken, I can assert that many of the above-mentioned articles end up catching poop in my eglu. I can also attest to the fact that my Mummy finds most of the content of the magazines you so obviously edit boring, trite, and lacking in any measure of creative value. Is it really too much to ask that gardening magazines employ writers with a modicum of talent and photographers who do not look through the lens with rose-coloured spectacles?

Helen Tyrrell November 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Having read certain gardening publications, the photography used to represent the gardens is sometimes poorly lacking, most of the pictures used are at the peak in late spring and early summer; a relatively easy time of the year to perfect the blossomy fullness of nature. I would before visiting like to see photos showing the garden through the seasons,to illustrate the structure and to show the creativeness of the gardener. Close up pictures of flowers are beautiful, but should solely be used to describe the plant in question. The hidden gems around secret corners and the atmosphere should be described in words, but words should be used sparingly. As for showing people in photos in the garden it should be of the creators, with short piece on the history of the garden, I’m not keen if the photo is crowded with randomers, as it is often distracting.

Duncan Heather November 29, 2011 at 12:35 pm

STORM IN A TEA CUP: I disagree with almost everything in this article and think its conception has more to do with Mr Stuart’s forthcoming book than any serious points of principle. Except for perhaps the RHS Garden Magazine (which doesn’t have to sell magazines) I know of no editors who illustrate a garden picture story with just ‘flower portraits’

When commissioning a story, editors require 3 types of shot, ‘The Establishing’ Picture (possible front cover) that sets the scene. ‘The Overview’ shots that allows the reader to gain a sense of place and ‘The Detail’ shots which show the essence of the space, which might include flower portraits but are just as likely to look at garden sculpture, pots or furniture.

The biggest limitation any editor has, is page space and its rarely possible to tell the whole story with just 4-8 photographs

People are included in the photography, if they are relevant to the story, which they rarely are, as we are talking about gardening magazines not life style publications

The quality of Mr Stuart’s supporting photos does little to back-up his argument and perhaps even calls into question his qualification to comment on the subject of photography. I only hope that his new book contains more authoritative content.

I’m of course up for debate prepared to be challenged – perhaps some examples of where these articles have occurred would help?

annewareham November 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm

Duncan – Rory did not write this to sell his book: I think he’d have done it a bit nearer the publication date if he had!

Worth noting too – publishers are increasingly expecting writers to provide (and pay for) their own illustrations. So the fact that someone may illustrate their own text doesn’t necessarily make them into a photographer, especially the photographer they might wish to be.

And I have frequently checked out a magazine article elsewhere than The Garden and noted one or two takes at different angles of a garden view and then much fill up with close ups of plants. Quite standard where the garden doesn’t offer much.

No photographer intending to sell a set goes out aiming to portray the garden as they experience it. As you say – it is formulaic.

Anne

Helen Gazeley November 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm

It hadn’t struck me before that the increasing popularity of artificial grass might in part result from photographs in gardening magazines. Pictured perfection + the “outdoor room” approach probably do, indeed, change the mindset of those creating a garden.

It’s a bit unkind, though, to ask of garden photography the sort of impact that arises from award-winning photoreportage such as Nick Ut’s picture of Kim Phuc fleeing napalm. Nevertheless, I guess there’s no reason why a garden image shouldn’t imply “more than it shows”, although, for that to happen, I do think you need more narrative, which means including human activity or, at the very least, signs of human presence.

Richard Loader November 29, 2011 at 10:56 am

Chen – take a look at the book on Amazon and you can browse inside. The gardens seem to be scarcely contaminated by humans within. Of course that may be due to a lack of available images with a human element.

Chen November 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Based on the thoughtful statements in this writing, I must buy the book ‘Gardens of the World’, and will look forward to enjoying garden photographs that catpture the ‘narrative, space and time’ elements of individual gardens. Indeed the present of human element as an integral part of the garden design (rather than an excess object) may not be a priority in many modern gardens.

Gary Parkin November 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Photographers will always take “nice” pictures because that’s what they spend all their time doing. Unless told otherwise, by the editor, they will continue to provide the same type of shots, over and over again.
I think you’re right though. If a publication or website is aimed at gardeners then the photos should take into account what they would like to see and what would be useful to them. However, the shots should be done with professionalism and care should still be taken to not embarrass the owner of the garden in question.
The solution would appear to be for publications and websites to only hire photographers who are also gardeners. I suspect that is easier said than done. Even a well briefed photographer, if they are not of the same mindset as the readers, will miss the point most of the time. Failing that, more gardeners need to learn how to take good looking but useful photographs.
Another idea, maybe the photos should be done in more of a documentary style. In my opinion, most photographers for hire would understand that and might manage to keep everyone happy with the resultant shots.
Just my twopenny’orth. I’m not a gardener, although I once saw a tree.

annewareham November 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Gary – I think gardeners would be the worst photographers – they do seem generally to be far too focused on plants!

And ‘useful’ does beg an interesting question – what is a useful garden photograph? (A future topic for thinkingardens?)

I would like to see photographs from a photographer sensitive to the aesthetics of gardens doing as Rory suggests – interpreting and rendering their own response to a garden, conveying as well as possible the strengths, weaknesses and unique qualities of a garden. And that they would work alongside the writer, who would not be being sent along six months later (in the middle of winter) because the editor had just accepted a set of pictures and now wants someone to ‘write it up’.

Gary Parkin November 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I’d taken it as read that the photos and writing would have been done at the same time. Silly me.
That would appear to be a major part of the problem. If the photos are being taken with no thought to an actual article then you’re always going to end up with the usual kind of pictures. Sounds like a change in attitude is in order to ensure that the photos match the article.
But I think I’m preaching to the choir.

Petra Hoyer Millar November 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Anyone with a decent camera and lens will know what is possible when it comes to ‘framing’ a picture and how one can ‘allude’ the scene to look a certain way. Even for the amateur photographer, editing photographs (mind not airbrushing) is so easy, where even simple cropping of photographs will change a photo dramatically. To some degree, I think editing of photographs will always be necessary to some degree – mind not airbrushing as that is misleading. The problem is that even the best camera, is never as clever as ones eyes, especially when it comes to colour and light. Though as gardeners, surely we know and recognise that fancy photographs in glossies are just that – cosmetically enhanced? I agree with you though on including people (gardeners) in the shots as it would be interesting to know, who’s behind the garden. Maybe just as owners and pets are said to look alike, perhaps so do gardens and gardeners?

Paul Steer November 28, 2011 at 8:44 pm

What an interesting idea….gardeners looking like their gardens ! We all frame the garden when we create it anyway…we think of veiwpoints and light and shade. Making a garden is like making a sculpture or a painting or a slowly evolving photograph. …essentially we frame it from where we look at the garden the most..we direct the view with paths with hedges etc. ..we edit the garden with our eyes..we cut and straighten and balance. I like to see the garden in its best light. I would be miffed if someone only photographed the bad bits…I know about the bad bits !

Sacha Hubbard November 28, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Used sparingly in an article, I see no harm in close ups of new or unusual flowers but in my opinion, it’s ‘cheating’ to use them to fill up pages which illustrate a *specific* garden. And I see no point at all in a close up of some very well-known plant unless it’s to illustrate how to combat the ravages of some beastie or other! And yes, I like to see photos of the owners in their garden. It gives both garden and owner much more personality and somehow, makes the garden more interesting, just as it’s more intriguing to visit an NT property if you know of the formers owners’ histories. Personally, I’d ban any digital jiggery-pokery. To me it’s like those photos one sees of a beauty spot, knowing full well that if the camera moved 2 feet to the left there’d be a glaring neon sign in shot, or a cement works! If garden articles and garden photographs are going to be of real use to gardeners – at whom they are, after all, aimed – warts and all is going to be much more useful and instructive.

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