The Photographic Garden

A preview of Matthew Benson’s new book

Matthew Benson January 3, 2012

Telling the Story of a Garden
Every garden has a story to tell, and every time you enter that garden with a blank digital card in your camera you have an opportunity to tell a beautiful, compelling story. It will not be the definitive statement about that garden; no such thing exists because nature is, by its essence, always changing and evolving. But it is your story of that garden on that day.

And the garden you experience may be very different from the impression it makes on others. I’ve even been complimented for having created beautiful images of gardens that the designers of those gardens didn’t recognize as their own. I’ve accepted these compliments with a caveat. While to some degree you are reporting on a specific place, the reporting must be invested with personal vision; you can’t just take pretty pictures without putting them in context.

Sometimes you need to create the vision. I’ve shown up on many assignments where the garden I saw in the scouting images looks nothing like the disappointing swath in front of me; the roses that bloomed so prolifically last season were decimated by a late winter storm, the lily border was torn up by insatiable deer, or the clematis arbor was just a ragged tangle of blossomless twine.

These changes in the garden are the rule. There is nothing static or certain. It is your job to be as creatively nimble as possible and to be resourceful, no matter what shape your subject is in. The shots you ultimately find may not present themselves to you right away. Be patient. You may have to spend some time walking through the garden without even bringing a camera to your eye, only taking the space in with all of your senses. Allow your deeper creative consciousness to start flowing, to figure it out for you. You may fall for the symmetry of hedging and trees or the arbitrary looseness of a wildflower meadow. You may spend your time chasing butterflies and bees as they flit from one blossom to the next. But the story you find must be your own. You are a visual artist, not a stenographer. And gardens are too multisensual to presume they can be captured objectively.

The best photographs in the garden hope to address the beautiful on all counts, as well as all the intangible revelations of color and form. The challenge is to expose the familiar for the first time, to look freshly and with keen interest on the complex natural world through your camera’s lens. Remember that you are always making self-portraits to some degree. Your best work is an act of self-evocation.

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If a garden means anything, it is a wish for beauty, for order, and for connectedness with natural things. We are outcasts from the first Genesis garden, after all, trying desperately to be let back in, to find purpose and meaning in our relationship with creation. The garden photograph that becomes art is one that transcends time and place and says something meaningful about what it is to be human with all of our senses awakened.

The artful photograph isn’t a post-production trick in Photoshop or a clever manipulation that is an end in itself; it is at once deeply personal and universal. And because we live in a time where real experience has often been superceded by the image, and much of our understanding of life comes through a virtual filter, making the photograph that is not a counterfeit or borrowed idea is a significant challenge.

We live according to images in a way that was never possible before. Digital and social media and the Internet saturate us with such a high-def idea of life that the personal has become almost banal. If an image is to succeed as art, it needs to layer the known with what is unknowable, the material with the spiritual. It must reflect reality while at the same time transforming it beyond its literal prototype, so that the artist’s vision and the real scene are both reflected in the image.

Point of View
Always be open to a new way of seeing. Never just stand square-footed and click, and have that be your point of view. Change your perspective so that you’re shooting from below, from above, from in between, and from the side. Surprise yourself with a new way of seeing the garden by taking chances. Many of these photographs will disappoint, but for every dozen or so that don’t work, one will capture something fresh that you hadn’t anticipated. Allow the camera to see for you; it has its own point of view, after all. Take advantage of its perspective on the garden.

Digital photography allows you the freedom to explore possibilities, to make mistakes, to reinvent images after the fact in postproduction. The only constraints present are a lack of technical understanding and weak visual ideas. Every individual will develop his own way of seeing, his own affinities for color, light, and form. Just as gardens themselves differ according to the tastes and style of the designer, your garden photographs need to evolve out of your own visual interests. You may be passionate about color or pattern or close detail. These predilections will evolve the more you shoot in the garden and the more familiar you become with technology and the fundamentals of light and design.

The running joke with me is that no matter how grand or spacious the garden, I always find myself backed up into a thorn-armored rose hedge, or flattened against an uncomfortable wall or fence. The best shots always seem to demand some physical compromise, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’m even willing to hang off the edge of a roof (assistant clutching my ankles!) to get a shot, or climb atop a high ladder or precariously perch myself up in a tree. The image you’re after is all that matters now, and you’re willing to do what it takes to get it. This is often what stands between a good shot and a great one: your commitment to being in the right place at the right time, no matter where or when that is.

Buy The Photo Graphic Garden now.

With a few exceptions, however, there’s something disorienting about the garden viewed from too high above, because it’s not how we experience it. Height flattens out perspective, and strips away our more sensual understanding of a place. It can be fascinating, but inhuman somehow and remote.

I once worked with an aerial photographer who was quite successful circling over cruise ships in a chopper or capturing golf courses from 3,000 feet, but on the ground he seemed less in his element, less able to make close connections. He would wear funny-colored suspenders and bright shirts to make up for his modest people skills.

Shooting from above also lacks intimacy, movement, smell, touch, and delicacy—all sensations we expect from a garden. Being in the garden at eye level with your camera, putting the viewer right inside the experience, is ultimately the most satisfying point of view. —Matthew Benson

Becoming a Storyteller

Technique: If visual narrative is the goal, work with all of your lenses in order to tell a complete story. Come in close, pull back, drop focus, and shoot deep. For a story to maintain a viewer’s interest, it needs to have multiple points of view. Use as many techniques as you can to convey meaning, or chose a particular story line and stick to it in order to make a singular statement.

Assignment: Choose any garden that intrigues or delights you and shoot images to explain what it is about the place that grabs you. Pick a very particular aspect of a garden and shoot that edited idea only, then pull back to tell the broader story.

Working with Point of View

Technique: If point of view is not only where you are when you shoot, but also your disposition toward your subject, then you need to remain flexible in order to find images that work. It’s your job to convey something specific about a garden, not just generalized loveliness.

Assignment: In the garden, choose a single planting and change your perspective after each shot. Shoot tight as well as pulled back, assessing the effect of each point of view. Every plant has an ideal photographic perspective that should be sought out, one that speaks to its character; your point of view should explore those ideas.

The Photographic Garden: Mastering the Art of Digital Garden Photography, by Matthew Benson, published by Rodale/Organic Gardening is on sale now.

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