Monday was the hottest May Day holiday on record in the UK and I did what countless others in the country were doing, gardening. I live on a narrowboat, so my garden consists of pots dotted around on the roof and foredeck. It was glorious at first, but soon became unbearably hot. Needless to say, no serious gardener would dream of potting new plants in the scorching midday sun. So, I retreated indoors and enjoyed my love for nature vicariously through The Photographer in the Garden, a wonderful anthology co-published by Aperture and the George Eastman Museum with texts by Jamie M. Allen and Sarah Anne McNear.
The book takes you on a journey from the early days of photography when the garden at Laycock Abbey beckoned Henry Fox Talbot with light and an abundance of static subjects to study, to the streets of London’s Hackney borough where contemporary artist Stephen Gill experiments with photography and nature to intoxicating effect. There is a wealth of image making, mainly from the US, that is explored through themes such as Paradise Garden and The Gardeners. What strikes me when perusing these pages is how such incredibly diverse practitioners have all been drawn to photographing plants, gardens and the people they inhabit.
There are pictorialists like Clarence H. White, who set their fairy tale scenes in dark glens, modernists like Imogen Cunningham who saw the very structure of flowers as majestic forms and documentary photographers like Martin Parr who revel in the rich colours and charm found in tourists visiting gardens, to name just a few. There are also found pictures taken by people much like myself who can’t help but capture flowers blooming or friends gathering for a picnic.
I am also struck by how the fascination with nature and our interaction with it has hardly changed since the beginning of photography. For instance, the desire to extract, dissect, document and examine plant life is carried through from the earliest botanical photograms made in cyanotype by Anna Atkins to contemporary image makers like Jo Whaley whose botanical studies are very sculptural.
I was surprised and touched to see August Sander’s everyday photographs of tomatoes growing on his roof garden and I keep turning back to Joel Sternfeld’s beautiful portrait of a blind man in his garden.
In keeping with today’s theme, I sign off with a picture taken from my own garden.