A garden is a setting for what can be an intensely personal aesthetic and even spiritual experience; in fact, this is the intended result of a well-designed garden. Can this be faithfully represented in an image? This is the goal of learning to see as a garden photographer.
Sitting in a small section of the Saiho-ji Moss Garden Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto, I noticed something peculiar, something I had never seen before. I was looking at a group of stones and noticing that the space between the stones was in perfect harmony with the stones themselves. I had never experienced this kind of subtle exactness in a garden, this kind of sensitivity to the entire space, where attention was given not only to objects but also to the absence of objects—the space between them. The harmony of proportions was both elegant and powerful. This sensation was reinforced when a worker, sweeping with his bamboo broom, entered the scene. Suddenly, the perfect proportions of the space went out of balance, and the effect vanished. When he finished his work and stepped out of the garden, the space instantly snapped back into its harmonious balance. The effect was astounding.
This was one of many observations I made during a year-long immersion into the gardens of Kyoto. Witnessing these exquisite gardens change through the seasons formed the basis for how I see a garden and, subsequently, how I photograph a garden. I have attempted to articulate this vision by identifying its component parts, not unlike preparing a recipe for a flavorful dish. When you taste good food, you might pick out the different ingredients, but things usually mix together into a delicious blend. So it is with seeing as a photographer: more often than not, it all happens at once. But if I had to prepare a list of the ingredients in a “Recipe for Seeing”—how I see and photograph a garden— this is what they would be:
• Simplicity of line
• Harmony of proportion
• Equality of attention
• Straight-line mind: detail
• Round mind: atmosphere
• Designer’s sensibility
• Photographer’s sensibility
Simplicity of Line
This, my number one ingredient, acknowledges that a simple line underlies a composition. If you were to take the three-dimensional space of the garden and reduce it to two dimensions (sounds like photography, right?), you can draw a simple line on top of the image that shows where the predominant movement goes through the image—where your eye travels through the picture. The simpler the line, the stronger the composition. Sight lines, those lines established by hardscape, and even lines formed by the plants all come into play. Finding that simple line is a good starting point for seeing a garden and for composing an image; this is especially true in gardens that are on the chaotic side. An image, at its essence, can be reduced down to a simple line, like a brushstroke, and this underlying line is the structural basis of the composition.
Harmony of Proportion
As noted above, there is a point where everything comes into perfect balance, including all the colors, the textures, the forms and the entire space of the garden. This applies not only to large landscape spaces, but to smaller vignettes and close-up compositions as well. This harmony is felt in your gut, not by applying a mathematical formula. Minor adjustments made by moving your camera up or down, left or right, can have a huge effect on these proportions, so it pays to take the time to slow down, set up with care, and get it exactly right.
Equality of Attention
Simply put, everything within a photographic composition is equally important. This means bringing your attention to every area of the picture plane and making sure it is just as important as every other area. As an example, the soft focus one may find in the upper corner of the background is of equal importance to the tight-focused flower that may be in the middle of the foreground. When this attitude is applied to the image, scenes become resolved, less ambiguous, and the overall composition becomes tighter. Gone are superfluous shapes and distracting elements (power lines, watering hoses, distracting bright patches of sky, or competing shapes and colors in the background) that do not need to be included. This is the natural result when you choose to photograph only that which is important, and you can see this because of your equality of attention.
When these first three components are combined, they form the foundation of a strong photographic image. They are like the legs of a sturdy tripod.
Let’s move on. There are two types of mindsets when entering into a garden to shoot; each yields different results.
Straight-line Mind: Detail
I compare this to a rational, shortest-distance between-two-points style of seeing that zooms in on the specific details of an image. It is a mindset wherein the attention immediately goes to accurate plant identification; sharply defined details carry the weight of the image. I have shot many a collector’s garden where the prize specimen, or a captivating plant combination, is what the garden is all about. My personal preference is to retain sharp foreground detail, since soft-focus foregrounds create a barrier that the viewer has to visually leap over to enter the picture. Crisp detail, especially tactile, sensory-stimulating detail, is an effective way to bring the viewer into an image.
Round Mind: Atmosphere
I compare this to a lyrical, non-rational, impressionistic way of seeing a garden that focuses on ambiance and mood. The purpose here is to discover the “vibe” of a garden and make that the subject of the photograph. This means appreciating the character of a garden rather than the precise details. Paying close attention to all the senses will help. For most of us, this means a “letting go” is involved, releasing our grip on the details and opening up to the subtleties of flavor and what it feels like to be in the garden. A similar attitude applies toward plant portraiture in getting beyond straight documentation to the personality of the floral subject.
There are two final ingredients that are essential to a “Recipe for Seeing” in the garden, and each deals with sensibility, which can be defined as “the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional and aesthetic influences.”
What are the designers (who may be the garden owners) trying to do in this garden? What are they trying to say? The garden is their artwork, and, as a photographer, you have the privilege of shooting it, but you also have the responsibility of showing their artistry in its most favorable light and using your skills to bring out what they are trying to express. This means tuning in to and supporting what the designer is saying as an artist. Garden photography involves a collaboration between the photographer and the garden designer (and Mother Nature!), and your seeing the garden needs to honor this relationship.
What do you, the photographer, bring to the mix? What are your aesthetic influences and choices? What is going on inside you? When this inner world is acknowledged and begins to come out through your work, your images jump to a higher plane. This is the “artist’s voice.” The practice of photography involves not only the outward world and its beauty, but that which is going on inside the photographer as well, and this inner world is revealed through the photograph. The camera is a tool that facilitates a permeable exchange between two worlds, the inner and the outer. Practicing photography means engaging in both worlds. Seeing in the garden often means finding a reflection of what is going on inside yourself.
A Garden Is . . .
I define a garden as a setting, comprised of plants and hardscape, atmosphere, space, and light, that has been created to offer the viewer a personal, inner experience. The intensity of the experience is the measure of the greatness of the garden. Whether that inner experience involves the satisfaction of horticultural knowledge or the appreciation of beauty and design, gleaning the rewards of hours of painstaking labor, or having a deeper realization—those moments are for each of us to encounter individually. I wonder if anyone reading this has not had the experience of feeling refreshed, with more mental clarity, more energy, revived and more relaxed, just by virtue of being in a garden. This is the type of personal experience I am referring to, and I suspect that all of us have felt this inner transformation in some way.
At its highest levels, garden photography taps into the connection of this inner human experience and the outer world of beauty. The garden is an ideal setting for what can be an intensely personal aesthetic and spiritual experience—in fact, this is the result of a well-designed garden. Can this be faithfully represented in an image? This is the purpose of learning to see in the garden and the ultimate goal of a garden photographer.
There is a way to make sense of the chaos of the visual world and to create compelling photographic images. Simmering a sauce of the seven ingredients in this “Recipe for Seeing” can take you there as a photographer. For those whose only goal is the sheer enjoyment of a garden, just sample an ingredient or two and see how it tastes. You might also discover that the ingredients work well in the process of designing a garden.