More on garden photography – by Laurent Kalfala and Gary Webb

January 24, 2012

in Articles, General Interest

The response to the pieces on garden photography was amazing – and I would encourage anyone who only read the original pieces to go back and read the comments. (see Rory Stuart and Charles Hawes) I also received two further pieces, which I am publishing here before we give the subject a long rest.

Laurent considers how garden photography could be more interpretative, and Gary looks at the role of blogging and the internet.

(all the photographs for these pieces except Gary Webb’s portrait are by Laurent Kalfala)

Anne Wareham, editor

La Cupa copyright Laurant Kalfala

Gardens as a subject for photographers rather than as an object, by Laurent Kalfala

I find both articles of Rory Stuart and Charles Hawes very interesting and would like to add another view from a photography perspective:

As a photographer, I find that garden images are very close to a commercial type of photography, maybe because many of the glossy garden magazines are published by the same people who do the homes and deco ones. In the same way that they are looking for amazing and perfect looking houses, with their owners posing in the living room, they often show beautiful looking gardens to please their readers and keep advertisers happy. They usually don’t ask photographers to have a personal view on the garden, but to show the place in a flattering way, at its best angles with the nicest light. Their purpose is to present the garden, give a ‘technical’ view of it, not an interpretation of it by the photographer.

There are many landscape pictures and still lives of fruits and flowers by great artists in the history of photography but very few garden images. This might be because garden is not a favourite subject for great photographers, but could it also mean that it is impossible to have a personal view, in the way, for example, portraits photographers give their interpretation of a person with their own style?  Garden images showing a presentation of the place in the moments it looks at its best in terms of colours and loveliness could be compared to a portrait of a young and beautiful model with a perfect make-up.

Villa_Strohl-fern copyright Laurent Kalfala

I believe garden photography can be much more than a description and it can also show some of the feelings one can experience in a garden at different moments of the day or the year. In the same way that great portrait photographers take pictures of people who are not perfect or young and beautiful, and try to catch what is ‘behind’ the face of a person, garden photographers can look for the ‘spirit’ of a garden, can express the feelings they experience when visiting it, when looking at it under a poor or sad light and even at night and at anytime of the year. Gardens are like people, they grow, get old, change, plants and trees die and garden photography can also be a portrait, not always flattering but strong, of this.

Villa Strohl-fern night copyright Lauren Kalfala

By doing it, photographers could produce images that could take a place in the history of photography on the same level as portrait, landscape or reportage photography…But, what would gardeners say ?

Laurent Kalfala  website    blog

Laurent Kalfala portrait copyright Laurent Kalfala






Developing Garden Photography by Gary Webb.

I write as a lifelong gardener, of sorts, with a busy family life and an interest in a wide variety of subjects linked to gardening. I try to approach my garden photography from a different angle,  to tell a story through my pictures. My thoughts may throw a different light to the present discussions, because I’m much less a photographer who gardens, I’m more a gardener who photographs.

Garden photography provides me with a clear way of recording the work achieved in my gardens over the years – a few shots taken on a digital camera or phone camera permanently records progress, and a little more time spent with my DSLR allows much more creativity. If I can produce a good quality image, in the right format, then it can contribute to the garden’s publicity and prominence, and ultimately to its attraction for potential visitors – there are after all many other attractions competing for visitors. My photographs haven’t given any financial return, but have been used on websites and for promotion.

My strength, if I think of myself as a gardener/photographer, is the fact that I spend so much time, at work, in ‘my’ garden; I’m there from sun up to sun down some days, and I experience all types of light, weather and unusual happenings. This does give me an advantage over photographers who visit my garden especially to take photographs, but I would quickly add that I’ve seen stunning pictures taken by people who sometimes visit only once for a couple of hours or so – infuriating.

More seriously, professional garden photographers do add another important ingredient to the pot, they officially record our gardens for ever, and whilst doing that capture images that inspire everyday people and bring gardening alive. Just imagine the gap in our knowledge if Country Life photographers hadn’t shot so many early images?

As a person who commits so much emotionally and physically to my gardening, imagine my joy when someone wants to feature my employer’s garden in a magazine. My thoughts are of written and photographic praise of the hard work of many staff, not least the gardeners and volunteers. Articles can record a moment in time when hopefully the garden is in full swing and looking its best and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Articles also, especially through their photographs, are important promotional tools for gardens, prompting a destination for visitors, employment for many, and ultimately helping to keep British horticulture at the forefront. They do have to be broadly and accurately descriptive however, for whilst we all know seeing is believing, exaggerated text or imagery can only lead to disappointment. (and frequently does. ed.)

Villa Strohl-fern 5 copyright Laurent Kalfala

Glossy magazines, reviews and professional photographs have their place most definitely, but I’d like to add another, booming option to the fray: the internet – you’re on it now, funnily enough.

Social media now allows amateurs like myself a chance to share anything they wish to with the world, stinging criticism or praise. My reliance on magazines and books for my regular top up is diminished: I can  keep up with, and sometimes communicate with, most of my favourite gardeners on line. I can get involved.

In my blogging exploits, of course I try to write like a true author, and with my photography I try to emulate the professionals, but I don’t see it as competition. I simply tell my side of the story. It gives me freedom, to describe how brilliant my environment is, and promote it. I needn’t wait for magazines to find us, or for photographers to turn up wanting the same old ‘pose-with-the-secateurs’ photo. I can shoot the relevant pictures, compose my own text and say what I want to say. Furthermore, I can send photographs out in seconds.

I’d recommend searching through some garden blogs, there is a lot of brilliant and original content out there, – and I’d hope that blog posts aren’t simply used as a source of ideas for established writers.

Maybe the media could look to bloggers to show the way forward? It is here where many gardeners are spending time, sharing information and photographs, chatting and communicating about all sorts of gardening subjects, and having fun. I’d be surprised if the periodicals aren’t losing readers to the internet, with its bright digital images, its down-to-earth authors and its speed.

Maybe, rather than thinking of competition between the printed word/photograph and the internet, we should be considering an alliance that should be working much more closely?

Gary Webb  blog

Gary Webb portrait copyright Gary Webb






Coming soon – reviews of the RHS magazine ‘The Garden’.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Emmon February 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I can respect a gardener really just wanting to document their garden. For me, garden photos that capture my attention are ones that are unusual or interesting or stunning as images. And I think that happens in only two ways. Either they look at an ordinary subject in an unusual, beautiful, and/or artistic way (by artistic, I mean some sort of creative, out-of-the-ordinary way, not necessarily “beautiful”). OR they document a subject that is itself out of the ordinary, and dramatize it’s uniqueness so you really see it. The 2nd photo above of the tree trunk, zeroes in and takes you into the world of that trunk. Is it realistic? I don’t think so. The reality is, you’d normally look at the whole tree with a lot of other trees around, and see sky and grass and a thousand other things. I think it’s unreal, but meaningful and artistic, to cut out 98% of your visual field, move in close, and enter the world of a small detail. Georgia O’Keeffe talked about that in discussing her flower paintings, where you sometimes see nothing but center of the bloom. It’s highly unusual, but captivating and wonderful.


James Golden January 28, 2012 at 2:37 am

I’ve followed the the somewhat controversial discussion about using photographs to present gardens (in contrast to visiting gardens to evaluate them) rather closely, and agree seeing the garden in person is the only way to actually know a garden. But with current media (personal and public) emphasis on the visual image, I also think it’s almost a losing battle to get people to realize what they see in a glossy magazine is only a photograph, not a garden. Best we can do is to keep making the point, raise consciousness. But photos do, in fact, have influence. And a photographer committed to showing a garden can, to a limited extent, communicate a more complete “experience” of a garden if she/he is willing to make the effort, and is willing to sacrifice a “great image” to “truth.” Even then, a photo is no substitute for reality, but it can come closer. As Gary Webb said above, the Internet and garden blogs seem to be changing the terms of discussion. On garden blogs photographs, and to a lesser extent text, and reader comments, may be creating a field of interaction that makes photographic images more “truthful” because they are discussed (in some cases) and are subject to critical appraisal by gardeners and designers. This kind of interaction can’t take place in a magazine.


James McCain January 25, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for continuing this interesting conversation. To answer Laurent’s question: “But, what would gardeners say ?”

As a gardener, I would say your first paragraph perfectly answers why garden magazines (and all other garden media) are filled with beautiful and flattering garden photography. Ultimately, isn’t it a matter of context; what kind of media, what is the allocated space, what is being communicated or sold, and to whom? I am grateful for all that uplifting, inspiring beauty and hope it continues where it makes perfect sense.

As to why gardens haven’t been a popular subject for photography outside of garden media, maybe it is because gardens themselves are works of art (for better or for worse); and their own gallery? An artistic photograph, by the photographers painterly or abstract devices, can often become self-referential – its own subject – or it can become something more akin to poetry in how it can distill and communicate the timeless or the ephemeral and transpose the viewer elsewhere. A really good garden does this as well. I believe that is why there has always been great nature photography. The photographer might prefer the free, unmediated opportunities of photographing wild places, where nothing has already been interpreted and composed.

I do not fault the “glossy magazines” for their pretty, documentary photographs, as they seem to use them as simple portals into actual gardens, albeit in their intended, idealized moments. In their straightforwardness, they seem to call on our own imagination of that garden, without the distraction inherent in a more artistic, atmospheric photograph.

That being said, I would love to see more artistic garden photography wherever photographers have the opportunity to present them! Thanks again for the wonderful posts and comments.


Petra Hoyer Millar January 24, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Writing a garden blog, has encouraged going through our garden photographs in more detail. Initially not intended as a record, it is great to see how the garden has developed over time. Having the time to take pictures from morning until night is certainly an advantage over the limited time a professional photographers/visitors have to take a photograph, as Gary explained. Though, knowing one’s garden in a way tends to dictates where we, as beholders of the garden, take the most photographs, as there are areas in every garden that one would consider below par. We therefore have a substantial collection of photo’s taken in the rose walk and herbaceous borders, kitchen garden etc. Seeing a different take on the garden through the lens of others, professional or otherwise, brings interesting variety, much welcomed. Ehhh, and only once have we had to do the ‘pose with the secateurs’ moment, which was horrific and worse, to no result as it was never published…!


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