Photographer’s Rant

– Posted in: Garden Photography

So, I return from the road to find Nancy and Fran inviting and giving advice about garden blog photography. Oh man, do I want to write a rant! This is why I joined this group, this is why I title my section “The Camera Always Lies”. Garden photography is how I make my living but too often these days I wonder if my work is helping or hindering gardeners in their own gardens.

Professional garden photography has gotten so much better in the past 20+ years that I have been doing this and publications increasingly rely on photos to sell the product and tell the story. This must drive writers nuts and why blogs are popular – the blog writing is personal and authentic while the books and magazines are decorated and false. The writing itself in the print publications is as good as ever but too often glossy photos imply an ease that real gardeners scoff at. And, too often I suspect, readers look at photos without reading the text and get no real understanding of what it takes to create a garden seen in a photo.

Often the photos that get published are taken in gardens that have no relation to the story or book chapter; and don’t get me started with the current trend of garden publishers using stock photos from random sources that can very well have an English garden photo illustrating an American garden.

This is certainly not true of all print media and I know and appreciate (along with my banker) that beautiful photos help inspire gardeners, but blogging offers an honest alternative. So long as garden bloggers use their own photos I think there can be no wrong. Maybe some want to see close-up, bug free specimens while others want to see the whole garden but, if authentic, it is all useful. I will say it is much harder technically to produce and display a wide garden scene in a small space and perhaps, if there is interest, I can get into an instructional mode one of these days, but since I am just back from a trip I will use some photos to illustrate the garden photographer’s dilemma.

I am working on my meadow book and just back from my last big trip. Got to visit and stay with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery fame and spent two days photographing his Wisconsin gardens. Autumn is coming on strong and many leaves have fallen on his “No-Mow” meadow lawns:

Neil’s lawn with leaves

Is this a useful garden photo ? Does it inspire ? Probably not by itself, but once you know Neil has never mowed his lawns and sells a mixed fescue seed blend (mostly Festuca rubra) you might want to say: “show me”. Once you understand the intent of his gardens – to have naturalistic meadows that only get raked once a year, you may begin to yearn for such a yard yourself and then the photo above becomes inspirational, a good photo to accompany a story.

This photo serves another purpose:

Neil’s No-Mow raked lawn

I raked his lawn and sought a more dramatic angle. Is this a useful garden photo? While I hope it is inspirational, I wonder if it is as useful as the first one. Given Neil’s intention to have a naturalistic lawn/meadow and knowing this photo can not possibly be how it usually looks, the photo is a lie. Hopefully it still serves my purpose: to inspire gardeners to try using meadows. I wonder though, if in showing this more dramatic photo, gardeners are being set up for a fantasy look that needs more care than most gardeners want to give. The photographer’s dilemma is between what the publishing client expects, what the gardener’s intention is, and of course the photographers own aesthetic.

An increasingly important aspect of my work is to illustrate gardens I personally find interesting, that are environmentally sustainable, and suit an evolving vision I have of beauty. I am consciously trying to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph. This is particularly important for Western gardeners (where I live) who need to find inspiration in our own ecosystems. All gardeners in all regions need to do this of course, but there is very little in traditional English inspired garden photography that is useful or authentically beautiful for Western gardeners. (Apologies here to the incredible gardeners in western Oregon and Washington who can pull off the English look because they have so much more water).

Here is a garden in Santa Fe, New Mexico I am photographing for Organic Gardening Magazine:

Sloane wide view

The photo by itself is hardly inspiring but it does give a good idea of the setting. I show this wide view only to illustrate how the photographer can “lie” with the camera. I want to use this garden in my meadow book so I come in tighter to have the camera say what I want:

This photo is certainly “prettier” than the over-all view but can be much more misleading if taken out of context, much the way English garden photo can mislead American gardeners. I could imagine this photo inspiring gardeners to try a meadow look but unless you live in the arid West these plants would never thrive. The shrubby Forestiera and Bouteloua grass have equivalents in other climates but the look would never be quite the same. Experienced gardeners understand this but only when they are told where the photo is taken. Imagine the frusration of a beginning gardener who might see this photo randomly illustrating a story about naturalistic gardens. Rant. The camera always lies.

Is this a meadow?

Big Tesuke forest

Oh yes ! and it does not get any better. God’s own meadow and I hope no-one is fooled into thinking a gardener could do this. In Santa Fe I hoped to connect with fellow gardeningonewild blogger David Salman, but my short visit coincided with a busy time at High Country Gardens and we could not meet this time. I then got lucky and connected with an old friend, the inimitable Gail Haggard whose Plants of the Southwest Nursery has inspired a generation of gardeners, David among them. Gail directed me to a couple meadow gardens in town but then noticed a haze of yellow way up in the mountains. We played hooky with what we were supposed to be doing and went to Big Tesuke trail in the Santa Fe National Forest. Without saying much about what I would find there, Gail took me to the most inspiring meadow I have seen. Her smile at my delight was priceless. She knew I “got it”, that this is what a meadow book must be about. I hope the publisher will include many natural meadows I have found in my travels, this is where gardeners must find inspriration if our constructed gardens are to have any chance of success.

I can not rant anymore about what is deceptive about traditional garden photography, I can only present what I think is important and hope it inspires. This inspires me to make meadows:

Santa Fe Forest floor

Don’t expect this at home . . . .

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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Nancy J. Ondra October 12, 2007, 8:31 am

Yes, Saxon–you took the bait! I hope you’ll excuse us for venturing our opinions from the gardener’s point of view. You raise some great points here. (As a writer, I could go into my own rant about the relationship–or competition–between photos and text in print media, but oh…don’t get me started.) I think we’d all be pleased to read you in “instructional mode,” too, if you’re so inclined.

Colleen October 12, 2007, 9:05 am

I would definitely love to read you in “instructional mode!”

Thank you so much for shedding some light on what we see in garden magazines and books. Your examples of “useful” vs. “inspirational” photos were wonderful.

Gloria October 12, 2007, 12:31 pm

You have sold one book right here.

I love beautiful photos. They have a place in books and magazines. But seeing the ungroomed, uncut versions helps a gardener make decisions about living day to day with a wilder style of garden.
The first photos are inspiring in that we can see the way it is incorporated into the area as a whole.
The second prettier pictures are the way we as gardeners see much of the time. A space, a flower, a time, captivating for a moment, making the alley or neighbors disappear to our eyes. Most of us understand and see the wider shot as we plan, then live with, the garden as a whole. Do not underestimate the public understanding of the way publications work.But I do see an increasing call for more of the whole as that is where we can see how a type of garden is achieved in the space we have to work with.
I really like this blog. Thanks to Colleen for leading us to such a find…

Ellis Hollow October 12, 2007, 12:50 pm

I come at communications from the words side. But I had the pleasure of traveling with an experienced photographer many times during a critical time in my career who taught me the value of images — and more importantly how words and images can work together. There’s no need for competition.

And while people visiting blogs want good content in their words, I think most want inspiring and useful images, too. So any time you want to offer us instruction — especially coupled images to bring your words to life — by all means bring it.

Saxon Holt October 12, 2007, 3:18 pm

Nice of Gloria to say: “Do not underestimate the public understanding of the way publications work” and perhaps my yearning to have more authentic garden information in traditional published photos is my own hope to push the limits of what gardening is to start with. That it should be intensely personal, perhaps inspired by what we see or read about, but satisfying within each of us. Too few photos seem to explore beyond the literal, too few publications want the quircky photo. I am happy and flattered when my photos compliment good writing (as when Nancy and I did our Grasses book) but I would love to see personal photos that need to be looked at to be understood. That is why I started my postings with the so very quirky photo of John Greenlee’s so very quirky garden.

I will not be able to keep up postings as much as Fran and Nancy (I only promised every 2 weeks) but am wanting to use this blog to get into photos that are a bit wild, either because I have seen a wild garden or I have a wild take on one. If this helps others “see” gardens great, I don’t know if my “instructional mode” will ever get too technical or how-to.

Robin (Bumblebee) October 12, 2007, 4:45 pm

This is a fabulous illustration of exactly why I love–and hate–all the gardening books on my shelf. Thank you for the reminder of why my garden will never look like the photos in those books. It is truly a strong reason why I enjoy reading garden blogs where genuine people show genuine photos. The beautiful book and magazine photos do inspire. But the reality is that gardening is hard work–and isn’t always picture perfect.

–Robin (Bumblebee)

fsorin October 12, 2007, 6:12 pm

Saxon-

What fabulous photos and a great opinion piece to go with it! Your writing was thoughtful and really offered a rich perspective on how and why gardens are photographed a certain way: I think the photos in their natural state that you have displayed are mouth watering.

I love the fact that you’re pushing the limits and think we gardeners can use more than a dose of that…..so your voice is a welcome one in the world of gardening blogs.
Fran

Benjamin October 13, 2007, 3:47 pm

Such fine comments above, but all I can add is: yes, yes, yes, exactly. Thank you.

Amy Stewart October 18, 2007, 4:19 pm

I LOVE this. I had so much to say about it that I decided to do a rant of my own. So check GardenRant when I’m up next on Monday. Great conversation.

Layanee October 22, 2007, 10:29 am

As a gardener and a garden blogger I am always looking for the perfect ‘shot’ to illustrate a wonderful planting composition. I have always maintained that it is much harder to take a good picture of the garden as a whole than a closeup and you have illustrated the reason. Can you help with the whole? We all realize that what you don’t see in a picture is as important to the overall garden as what is shown. I often feel guilty after posting a particularly beguiling picture of a group or single flower with the less than perfect perennial just out of the shot.

Gardener of La Mancha October 24, 2007, 12:54 am

Thanks for your honesty and the beautiful photographs. I’m inspired.

Renee October 24, 2007, 8:11 pm

Artists have always edited the view. Childe Hassam’s paintings of Celia Thaxter’s island garden left out a LOT of the background. An exhibit a few years back showed his paintings, and photos of what the garden/hotel actually looked like at the time, and you would not have guessed the photos and paintings showed the same place. We also edit with our brains, and see what we want to see: I’ve always loved having lots of daffodils in my spring borders, because your eye edits out all the bare spaces, and you just see masses of glorious color. My camera, alas, seems to make the bare spaces bigger and the daffodils puny. So the camera works both ways.

Thomask October 25, 2007, 1:35 am

I’m new here and your photos are gorgeous. I like the first Santa Fe pic much more. It looks like Santa Fe and the composition is wonderful with the warm colors balancing the cool ones. I’d call the second pic a beautiful elaboration of the first.

I can’t relate to a lot of your philosophising, though. If the ideal of beauty is a natural meadow, where does gardening enter? Seems like anything a gardener’d do would be a diminishment of natural beauty. If this is really your thing, I say god bless you, stick to your guns and become a naturalist, letting nature take its course.

Or maybe you have a desire to be a natural stylist, tweaking nature here and there to achieve a particular esthetic effect. Don’t know if that’s gardening, but it’s a valid artistic statement. Maybe this type of “gardening” is waiting to become the next hot trend? I believe Gertrude Jekyll did this kind of thing in some areas of Munstead Wood.

I’m a more traditional gardener for pleasure, and the idea of taking pride in how little time you need to spend gardening seems perverse. Beyond perverse. Either folks like to garden, and like it so much they put up with the multitude of disappointments, or they will fall away no matter how you entice them. There’s no way to avoid all the bumps in the road, though we always want to spare the newbies a few.

Not that I was asked, but I’d say go with pics that inspire you, understanding that there will be many who will not be inspired by your taste. So what? The important thing is your desire to tell the truth, which comes through loud and clear. Thank you.

Saxon Holt October 26, 2007, 2:19 am

I appreciate the recent comments about art and philosophising, as it is at the heart of the dilemma a commercial artist must face. I see my self as a garden communicator using the camera to present garden information, not as an artist manipulating reality. However, I know I do manipulate, and thus the source of some angst. Viewers make assumptions of their own reality when they see photos.

This carries through even in the assumption that a naturalistic style of gardening is not really gardening. That is certainly true for some but I assure you, the meadow gardens I am photographing for this new book are not low maintenance. It is another source of angst – showing photos that look naturalistic, implying ease, ,when I know it takes as much work to have a sophisticated meadow as it does to have a sophisticated mixed border.

And, quite honestly, that is exactly what John Greenlee and I want people to “get”. Meadow gardens can provide immense satisfaction for serious gardeners. While the photos may imply ease, the text will clearly describe the challenges. Too often, as I said in the intitial posting, people only look at the photos.