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‘The camera forces us to see nature in a new way’

‘The camera forces us to see nature in a new way’

‘The camera forces us to see nature in a new way’
April 21
21:15 2018

Years ago, while walking through Barnsley House garden in Gloucestershire in the company of its formidable creator, Rosemary Verey, I was given some advice. Or, rather, a reprimand: “You’re not looking. You have walked the full length of the double border and you haven’t turned round and looked back along it. You must look at everything at every angle. You must learn to see.”

Since then I have taken greater care to observe, and to observe other people looking at gardens. There are various approaches, from the time-poor visitor’s penetrating, panoramic sweep to the obsessive who gets to work with kneeling pads, notebook and rare-plant-identification apps. For the less obsessed, sometimes all that’s needed is a gentle amble, stopping occasionally to sit amid the scent and zephyrs and breathe in the scene.

Dedicated gardeners do very little sitting because there is too much to do. Which is a shame because sitting, even in a familiar plot, encourages criticism and appreciation. Gardens are a complex art form because they are in constant motion: plants morph minute by minute, hour by hour, season by season; day and night transfigure form and features; the quality of moonlight or daylight brings out certain shapes and colours and obscures others; rain adds sparkle to petals; leaves open and shut as temperatures rise and fall; and even the gentlest breeze ruffles and reveals.

Some of that bewitching diversity is captured in the George Eastman Museum and Aperture book The Photographer in the Garden. The photographs go further because they pose the age-old, fundamental question about how to define a garden. Does it have to be outdoors? Does it have to involve plants? Does it depend on size or scale? The answer is “no” to all the above, as the book demonstrates. I wonder what Verey would have made of it.

Martin Parr ‘Orkney Islands, Scotland’, 2007 © Magnum Photos
Jacqueline Hassink, ‘Haradani-en 1, Northwest Kyoto’ 2010. From the series ‘View, Kyoto’ © Jacqueline Hassink

The photographs certainly force the reader to look and see. And we are made to look and see very different things from the English country garden style made famous by Verey and others in the 1980s. That vision, still widely accepted and loved as the quintessential English garden, was recreated from a past that in some ways never existed. It was an ideal nurtured between the covers of books by Shakespeare, Marvell, Spenser and Wordsworth and brought to heel in the 20th century. An ordered confection of colour and form; nature tamed; a vision that launched a thousand chocolate boxes, magazine covers and calendars. That outdoor version of chintz remains popular in the UK as well as parts of Europe, the US and even China and Japan, where English designers continue to reproduce Albion’s Edens. But it is just one garden style. Just one popular, romantic type of garden.

The book’s cameras remind us of our myopia when it comes to gardens, forcing even the most experienced eyes to see something different. And to consider, once more, what a garden is. William Larson’s arid “Untitled”. Stephen Gill’s “Hackney Flowers”. William H Martin’s 1909 “A Pumpkin of ‘Powerful’ Growth”, showing a house apparently shifted into the air by a massive pumpkin. Painted rocks on a dome of earth beside a bungalow in Martin Parr’s “Orkney Islands, Scotland”. Flowers being grown in a toilet and cistern, as photographed by Bill Owens in 1971. All these can be counted as gardens in their own right — even the stargazer lilies in a plastic water bottle by Wolfgang Tillmans. I defy anyone to come up with a valid definition of the word “garden” that excludes any of the above.

Bill Owens ‘Before the dissolution of our marriage my husband and I owned a bar. One day a toilet broke and we brought it home. 1971’ © Bill Owens
William Larson ‘Untitled’, 1980. From the series ‘Tucson Garden’ © Courtesy the artist/Gitterman Gallery, New York
Collier Schorr ‘Lily Pads 3’, 2006; from the series ‘Blumen’ © 303 Gallery, New York

But if photographs can force us to re-evaluate our own ideas of Eden, they can never echo the full-blown, multisensory delight of a garden. However technically ingenious, however original the angle, a picture can only hint at a garden’s sensual qualities: the musty perfume of freshly dug earth when rain has fallen, the euphoric scent of mock orange on a summer’s day or the magical waft of daphne in early spring. Photographs can never capture the susurration of summer leaves or the death rattle of late autumn ones just before they fall. Or birdsong or croaking frogs. Or the splash of water from a mossy fountainhead.

Nobuyoshi Araki ‘Painting Flower’, 2004 © Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo
Stephen Gill ‘Manor Garden Allotments – Hackney Wick’; from the series ‘Hackney Flowers’, 2004-2007 © Stephen Gill
Wolfgang Tillmans ‘Podium’, 1999 © Maureen Paley, London

The camera can and does force us to look, see and question gardens in a similar way to the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell in these lines from “The Garden” (1681):

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays;
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, ‘Children and Teacher in a Garden’, 1899. © Courtesy George Eastman Museum, Purchase with funds from the Alvin Langdon Coburn Purchase Fund
Photographer known as ‘Cromer’s Amateur’ ‘Bouquet of Flowers’, c1845 © George Eastman Museum, Gift of Eastman Kodak Company, Ex-Collection Gabriel Cromer, London

Jane Owen is FT Weekend’s deputy editor and author of several garden books. ‘The Photographer in the Garden’ is published by Aperture at £40

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