Garden in the abstract

This image is of a type I’m fond of. Not abstract, exactly … but a view of the garden that isn’t possible with just the human eye. These “abstract” compositions, chance arrangements of plants and objects, rely on the camera’s inability to see in three dimensions … and, of course, my ability to frame what I see with a camera, not chance at all; conscious selection.

Only when these diagonal lines, flower blobs, complex shapes are cast onto a flat plane does this quality emerge. It helps to have a screen of large plants in the foreground, preferably large plants with striking character and presence (in this case Rudbeckia maxima and two kinds of Silphium).

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I enjoy these two-dimensional views, probably as much as I do sitting in the garden.

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Is this a valid way to enjoy the experience of the garden? Silly question. Of course. Though it’s a solitary pleasure and very unlike sitting in the garden.

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After looking at these images, I went outside and walked through this part of the garden several times, observing carefully. The experience is entirely different when you see these scenes with no photographic frame, and in three dimensions. You become part of the scene, moving, changing the view at will.

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These images have that “flat” quality of Japanese wood cuts, almost like printed fabric. They’re moments frozen in time, mementos of passing instants, at their best with a story to tell of composition, or the passage of life, perhaps a paean to the sun.

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Here’s another scene with a similar two-dimensional effect. Here willows – silvery Salix ‘Britzensis’ – serve as the foreground screen.

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And another … Physostegia as the screen …

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… and another.

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9 thoughts on “Garden in the abstract

  1. I wouldn’t have thought that anything you did, James, was two-dimensional, but I get your drift.
    Photos lie, is how I see it. Photos I only too willingly post are selective. They tell you a truth, but they can never reinstate the viewer in the moment when the photo was taken, or the space – gone now – the photo was taken in.
    It’s better that way. For all our ingenuity, we cannot yet transport one another in actual time to another time. But it’s a little sad for the garden-maker, who wants his visitors to be there.
    For me anyway, there might just be a day when I get to see your garden in the flesh, but even that moment will be usurped by the ongoing changeability of life.

    1. Faisal, yes, I can agree that photographs are not the reality they appear to show. I think you can say they lie, but not necessarily so. I understand your feeling. I rarely watch cinema because the huge screen glamorizes the merest trifles. I find the experience disconcerting. Photography can be true, I think, but it’s up to us to remember that its truth is not the reality we experience every day. A photograph can substitute for the garden, though what it gives you is something entirely different from the garden. The failure is in not remembering is an artifact, a thing apart.

  2. Hi James,
    This post really speaks to the differences in how people see. While I perceive the juxtaposition of the different elements and the prominence of various angles and shapes, it doesn’t seem at all abstract to me. I don’t notice the flatness right away even as I am drawn to the prominence of some of the shapes. Now, I am a very visual person AND my artistic preference is to simplify and exaggerate (much like caricature). Hmmm…I wonder if there is a causal relationship there and, if so, which way it works? See flat…draw flat…or draw flat…look for flatness and simple shapes…

    Recently, I’ve started to use my camera more aggressively to highlight the subject of the photo through cropping and focal length. I like it. I like to use these tools to help communicate my vision. But, in my case, I also use these tool for cheating–vanishing the ratty bits with cropping and short focal length. I think you rarely need to rely on this cheat.

    1. Emily, I have to admit I’ve taken other images that better exaggerate the flatness of the photograph. I usually use a Cannon DSLR that allows me to easily control depth of field, so that the foreground is in focus but the background isn’t. On the day I took these, I was testing a Cannon G-11 point-and-shoot that I’ve been unhappy with. It was a blazing hot, bright morning, and I didn’t know the camera well enough to throw the background out of focus. So in a sense I’m showing illusions (the photographs) that actually refer to past illusions (past photographs that better represent flatness), and you realized something was wrong.

      You compare using photographic tools to cheating. I wonder if all attempts to photograph aren’t some form of cheating. Certainly so when we present them as representations of reality.

      When I try to show the garden in photographs, I usually use many different kinds of shots, long shots of the garden within the context of its woodland setting, plants against the sky, close-ups, shots of the same subjects from various points of view, etc. This involves a willingness to sacrifice a good photo to a more honest attempt to represent the garden as best one can. It often means using images that are not the best choices aesthetically, but using them anyway because they show better what actually lies on the land. Of course the result is never a subsitute for a visit to the garden, but some attempts get closer to that than others. Cropping can be both a lie and an aesthetic choice. I think that’s okay so long as we represent these images for what they are.

  3. You are way over my head with this post. But I will say I like the first one best because the glimpse of the coneflower is a reminder there is always something more just outside the viewfinder.

    1. Thanks for that comment, Marian. I think you got the point. It is often said, and repeated again and again, that you can’t appreciate a garden in photographs. Or rather, what you’re appreciating is the photograph, not the garden. That’s a shame since most of us will never be able to visit all the gardens we might want to experience; the closest we can come is to look at photos. So the question is, what is the value of a photo, and what garden knowledge or appreciation can we get from that? Your noting that something’s always outside the viewfinder brings us back to the reality of the garden.

  4. Interesting contrast between how we see and how we experience a scene. I do have many moments when I am sitting in or walking the garden where the frame becomes apparent — even without a camera. Those are the aha moments, when I see the composition of just a small part and it pleases. Even though I am surrounded by the whole 3 D scene, and can smell it and feel it, those aha moments are little crystalline framed shots of just one scene and my mind sees it the way a camera would.

    1. I have mixed feelings (as about so many things). A photo can lie or it can focus a truth. I’ve been thinking about the atmosphere of the garden, trying to take time each morning to go out and sit in a shady corner and look, listen, and feel. But I continue to take hundreds of photos (a gift/curse of digital photography) too, to compare the garden from year to year, to remember what happens when, and with that comes the composition, getting just the right image in the frame–a mixed blessing. Since I have time, I’ll continue to try to give the garden time alone, to separate time for experiencing the garden from recording it.

  5. I landed here after coming to your blog from the New York Times article. It reminds me that when people say how lovely my garden is, I tell them it’s because of what I choose to take photos of. While it is true that the areas I choose to show photos of are much better in person, there are also some areas with bare spots I’m working to fill, or some plants that are struggling for some reason or another. When they come to visit, I tend to point those areas out, maybe to make sure they know I don’t consider it perfect.

    Congratulations on the article, and have fun with your garden visitors.

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