Wending and Wind

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Most gardens of any size are designed with wending in mind.  Don’t you just love that Old English word “wending”  ?  So casual, carefree, and contemplative by inference.  Even formal entries can invite wending.

The entry to this garden was designed by my friend, the landscape architect Robyn Sherrill, who fortunately for me does not own a camera.  She is really a cowgirl at heart and would rather be on a pony than taking pictures, or even designing gardens.  That is saying a lot (though please don’t forward this to her potential clients), because she is great at designing gardens.

Once, the entry to this suburban property was mistaken for the side yard.  Then Robyn redesigned the gate by the driveway and laid down a wide stone walk.  I loved hearing her stories of a massive slab of stone that had to be placed with a crane by the front door and the importance she puts in the seams when laying down stone.

I liked hearing her stories but I secretly dreaded photographing a formal stone path.  It is so, well . . .  static.  In the two dimensional space of a camera it does not invite wending.  If you are there, the wide path does invite one to admire the beautiful Japanese maples flanking its sides, but by itself the walkway is simply a hardscape element of landscape architecture – not a garden photographer’s dream assignment.

Well, the simple solution of making a good photograph of a formal subject is to celebrate its formality and create a photo with clean lines and graphic composition.  The dark gate gave me an opportunity to play off the light, and a long lens allowed me to keep crisp, undistorted lines.  A nice enough composition but not really a great garden photograph.

What you see above though, is actually only the bottom half of what is a vertical photograph.  The more compelling solution to making a static piece of hardscape look more interesting, is to place it in context of the rest of the garden.  It is the most important thing I have learned as a photographer – try to understand what the scene is about, not literally what it is.  Then, photograph with intent.

Before I show you the full photograph, I will take you through my thought process on assignment day.

As a pro I have to schedule shoots for specific days, and then hope I have enough wits and good weather with me that day to make photographs a client is happy to pay for.  In California, certainly in the summer, there are no rainouts and bad weather is no excuse for a weak photo.

I talked about bright light as a problem in my last post and I continually look for the soft light of early morning or late afternoon.  Light could be a whole chapter in that book I will write one day and is the second most important thing I have learned (and continue to learn) about photography.  But bad light is not a bad conditions weather excuse for not getting the job done.  A pro can schedule for decent light.

The worst weather is wind.  Strong winds make it impossible to take a decent plant picture of course, but it makes it impossible for me to quietly think and figure what a garden is about.  I get anxious and on edge, I simply can’t get into that contemplative mood I need for understanding.

It was really windy the day of Robyn’s shoot.  Fortunately, I had scouted it the day before with her and knew, despite her gushing over the width of grout lines of the walkway, that my job was to photograph the garden.   The path would have to be put in context of the entry and the trees.  But the wind made me anxious, in truth in a foul mood, angry that I was being forced to do my work on a day such as this.

I stood in the driveway looking at the gate and down the walk toward the house.  It was dark and shady under the trees.  The wind whipping in my ears. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see anything.  The gate blocked the path.  Even opening the door to an inviting “come on in” angle couldn’t work.  The wind blew it shut.  The wind, the wind.

The stories of Le Mistral winds in France are legendary and California winds can be just as brutal.  If the BBC can declare “the Mistral is believed to be more than capable of driving even the sanest weather scientist to gibbering insanity”, I can confirm the California winds will make a garden photographer stupefied.  There was no way I was going to make a decent picture on this day.

I say stupefied because the solution was so simple.  It took the wind forcing me out of the driveway to the shelter by the house to make me see this picture, the picture I should have been thinking about all along.

The path is clearly in context of the garden.  You are invited to “be” in to the garden rather than “go” in as I had envisioned from outside the gate.  I can expose for the shade under the trees, separate the gate from the light in the driveway, make the path part of the larger garden.

Even without the wind, this is the picture that needed to be made.  But with the wind, captured by a slow shutter speed with camera on a (sturdy, wind proof) tripod, it becomes a distinctive picture.  Brush strokes giving life to the scene.  A scene I was worried would be a static hard scape is now a solid hard scape, architecture to withstand the elements, the part of a garden a designer can control, amidst a garden we can not.

A nice place to stop this lesson but ‘les you wonder where this garden wends, let’s wind our way around behind the house where the wind whips the grasses and I can include one more brief lesson on wind.

This urn is all about being a focal point.  Wend no more.  Robyn carefully chose the dark Cotinus ‘Grace’ behind and the delicate Pennisetum ‘Bunny Tails’ in front.  These plant colors and textures work on many levels to frame the urn.  My job was to say focal point.  Here the wind, my worst enemy, helped again.

Thank you wind.

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Ginny June 23, 2010, 9:55 am

Thank you for a wonderful garden photography tutorial! And I love the photos.

Glad you liked it. Hope it wasn’t too long “winded” – Saxon

Alan Detrick June 23, 2010, 11:08 am

If you can’t beat them join them. Or in this case, if you can’t beat the wind shoot the wind. Thanks for the lesson and great shots.

Alan

Benjamin June 23, 2010, 11:26 am

Fantastic, Saxon! I’ll be playing with shutter speeds today in my Nebraska, wind-swept garden. And dreaming of that gate / fence.

The trick really works if the hardscape is a key element. Play with shutter speeds, at least 1-2 seconds. – Saxon

Stacy June 23, 2010, 1:25 pm

Thank you for sharing your whole thought process with us–not to mention the fabulous photos! And thanks for using the word wending. I hadn’t heard it in far too long.

Pam/Digging June 23, 2010, 3:35 pm

I like the framing of that 2nd gate shot, but the blurriness of the trees is a little too much for my taste; I kept reaching for my reading glasses to see if it was my eyes or the computer screen.

I love the last shot–both her composition and yours, Saxon. Superb!

Hmmm – I certainly appreciate different tastes but find it interesting you “kept” reaching. We all hope to get our viewers to interact with the images and give it thoughtful consideration. I thank you.
The second one took a little extra cropping and tilting in the computer to make it fit *exactly* the way I wanted. You noticed. Thanks #2 – Saxon

Heather's Garden June 23, 2010, 5:49 pm

I have to agree with the earlier commenter, the movement of the trees is a little bit too much for my taste. Which is strange because I usually love your final composition. Nonetheless I enjoyed the lesson and showing my husband that I’m not the only one who uses the word wend!

I actually have several other good shots of that entry including a lovely horizontal of the gate among the tress. Some shots are even more blurry, some almost still. I can be very patient waiting for for the wind to die down when I know I have a good scene in front of me. – Saxon

healingmagichands June 24, 2010, 6:58 am

I have to say I liked both of these photos a lot. When the second more vertical photo was revealed, I actually made a verbal “Aahhh” sound, I found the watercolor wash of trees so satisfying. The urn is just beautiful.

But Saxon, you are not only a photographer, you are an excellent writer too. This was a very lucid description of your process, and I believe that part of my reaction to the full vertical shot was set up by your prose before it.

Anyway, thanks for starting my day off so beautifully.

Thanks for noticing the writing. I struggle with it, and am trying to lead people to the same “Aha !” I have myself when a photo reveals itself to me. – Saxon

keewee June 24, 2010, 1:18 pm

That is a very elegant entry.

It is, isn’t it ? Of course “entry” is the whole concept. I got carried away with wind and wending. – Saxon

MAYBELLINE June 24, 2010, 4:08 pm

That gate is beautiful!

Debra Lee Baldwin June 28, 2010, 5:08 pm

I do like both the cropped phono and the one with wind-blurred trees. You got lucky (or were remarkably patient) to get tree limbs in the upper left outlined by sun—otherwise that section would be too dark and indistinct. Interesting, too, that there’s such a large dark area behind the urn. Both urn and tree photos leave room for a title…perhaps for that book you’re going to write~

The thing about showing photo to others, I wouldn’t show it if I hadn’t been “lucky” (g) – Saxon

Jack Holloway June 29, 2010, 9:22 am

Fascinating. Your article is as well composed as your photographs!

Evelyn Hadden July 10, 2010, 12:46 am

I admit, I skipped ahead as soon as you said you were going to show the end result photo later. And I’d do it again.

So evocative!

One point I make in my talks that you also are making here is that a garden can be a beautiful scene, but it can also be much more in terms of what emotions and thoughts it provokes.

Thank you for sharing this (and your lyrical words too, which I did go back for).