Through the Photographer’s Eye: Finding a Sustainable Aesthetic

By: Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is a professional garden photographer who contributes regularly to Pacific Horticulture and is widely published in books such…

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Sustainable garden? This picture, taken twenty years ago is a manipulated fantasy: each of the low shrubs is in a five-gallon nursery can. Author’s photographs

Sustainable garden? This picture, taken twenty years ago is a manipulated fantasy: each of the low shrubs is in a five-gallon nursery can. Author’s photographs

A Western aesthetic (from Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates)

A Western aesthetic (from Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates)

I have a nearly impossible job. I am a garden photographer. The emphasis here is on garden, for, though I use a camera as a tool, I am not well versed in the gear and gizmos. Don’t ask me about Photoshop or the best new camera; my brain goes into an anxious frenzy when confronted with the changes that are swirling around the world of professional photography. Though my job requires keeping abreast of these dizzying changes, I don’t want to know much about them. As for gardens, I know a little, but yearn to know much more. Rather than a garden photographer, I prefer to call myself a garden communicator, using a camera to show what I learn. Increasingly, I’m aware of the responsibility that comes with this role—for the camera always lies.

Jennifer Carlson’s sustainable composting cycle in Seattle: chickens produce eggs and manure; manure is composted with green waste; raspberries are fertilized with and watered from the cistern - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/through-the-photographers-eye-finding-a-sustainable-aesthetic/#sthash.hZmSSURc.dpuf

Jennifer Carlson’s sustainable composting cycle in Seattle: chickens produce eggs and manure; manure is composted with green waste; raspberries are fertilized with and watered from the cistern

I learned this honest truth thirty-five years ago, on the first day of a four-year apprenticeship with master photographer Ted Kurihara. It is no secret that photographers manipulate their images, either in the creation or the editing process, to illustrate their own ideas of whatever subject comes before the camera. What professional photographers know, and what I learned that first day, is that most consumers of our photographic work assume that the camera is telling the truth. Even garden photographers have been known to manipulate a photograph to create a fantasy, as shown above. When I switched from commercial photography to garden photography, I was already a gardener, but, being new to gardening in the West, I had not yet developed a full understanding of the climate. I unwittingly bought into a look that already existed in national garden publications, helping to perpetuate the “English” garden, a style that is unsustainable in many ways—particularly here in the West. Garden photographers have been complicit in creating this false model of gardening. Photographs in glossy publications inspire readers to mimic what they see. Even the most committed devotees of regionalism are known to succumb to tropical wonders and alpine treasures when such images are well positioned in a popular garden publication.

The Hermit’s Garden, created by Kate and Ben Frey at The Late Show Gardens in September 2009 - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/through-the-photographers-eye-finding-a-sustainable-aesthetic/#sthash.hZmSSURc.dpuf

The Hermit’s Garden, created by Kate and Ben Frey at The Late Show Gardens in September 2009

A Personal Breakthrough

Thirty years or so after moving to California—learning a new climate, photographing in different light, subscribing to Pacific Horticulture, and learning from wise and committed California gardeners—I had a breakthrough. I was asked by Nora Harlow of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) to work with her and her team of water conservation specialists to create a new book that would inspire gardeners to conserve water. The title and intent of EBMUD’s Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates was to honor our regional climate and not confuse new gardeners with the term “mediterranean,” which is how meteorologists refer to our annual cycle of wet winters and dry summers. We hoped to subtly encourage our own regionalism, avoiding the implication that the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe offered the only logical model for architecture, garden designs, and plant palettes appropriate for Western gardens. After all, parts of Australia, South Africa, and Chile also share a summer-dry climate that encourages outdoor living and the use of a special plant palette. In the course of doing the EBMUD book, I realized that we were changing the aesthetic of what readers expect in a garden photograph. The book, beautifully designed by Beth Hanson, was a bit of an epiphany for me, proving that we in the media have the opportunity—indeed, the responsibility—to encourage a regionally appropriate and sustainable garden style. In that book, I think we achieved our goal of presenting beautiful gardens that do not use lots of water. Of the 543 photographs in the book, not a single one shows a lawn, and I would describe every garden as sustainable—in its own place. Its “place” might be a hot interior valley or a more temperate coastal bluff, but each garden illustrated helped foster an inspiring, site-specific, sustainable aesthetic.

This garden helped restore the viability of native oaks when a lawn was removed (from Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates) - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/through-the-photographers-eye-finding-a-sustainable-aesthetic/#sthash.hZmSSURc.dpuf

This garden helped restore the viability of native oaks when a lawn was removed (from Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates)

Sustainability: An Illusive Concept

Even the best examples of sustainable gardens require some supplemental water, as well as ongoing maintenance. Here in the West, if we add no supplemental water to our gardens, provide no maintenance, and allow every critter into them, we might get one like the fanciful “Hermit’s Garden” created by Kate and Ben Frey at The Late Show Gardens last September at Cornerstone Sonoma. I presume anyone reading this has more interest in beauty that did that hermit. The truth is that there are no gardens without gardeners, and no garden is entirely sustainable without human intervention. In the West, that includes adding water. Perhaps “sustainable” is an oxymoron. Whether we like it or not, we humans are self-serving in this: we rarely envision a world that sustains itself without us. We need to understand the complicated interdependence that links us with nature. Nature is us, and we are changing. As a society, we make collective decisions for our own survival. While we might question the specific allocations of water around the West, few would argue entirely against dams, diversions, and wells. We struggle with balancing our own needs with that of the earth. In the end, sustainability may only be known by its absence, for, until the last man and woman give up the struggle, mankind will sustain itself in some manner.

David Fross’s meadow after twenty years, in Arroyo Grande, California - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/through-the-photographers-eye-finding-a-sustainable-aesthetic/#sthash.hZmSSURc.dpuf

David Fross’s meadow after twenty years, in Arroyo Grande, California

A Responsible Garden Photographer

Meanwhile we struggle to learn: we fight our own impulse to put man above nature. We try to live sustainably without knowing exactly what that means. And that brings me back to the impossible job I have as a garden photographer. How do I use my abilities to illustrate a sustainable aesthetic when few of us can agree what that ought to be, much less what it looks like? I try to do this by working with writers who know more than I do, and by collaborating with those whose words can amplify my photographs. I have a commitment to my publishers and the audiences who buy my books, that the photographs I present them are authentic, offering an informed interpretation of a sustainable aesthetic. If there is beauty in a good garden photograph, it comes from an appreciation of the story behind the image. A painting is, after all, more meaningful when we know the story behind it. Sometimes sustainable beauty is embodied in a clever adaptation of function, as, for instance, in the pruned branches that Judy Adler piles under her manzanita hedge. Yard waste kept on site is a beautiful concept and worthy of publishing. It is an aesthetic of consciousness—pleasing when we understand the reason behind it. Few photos, by themselves, can illustrate a garden’s sustainability. A reader needs to know where a photo was taken and its full story. I think of Jennifer Carlson’s Seattle garden, seen, in part, on page 33.I was squeezed into the corner of her small back yard, between a chicken coop and her back fence, on which grew raspberries mulched with the compost she created from chicken manure and green waste and irrigated with the water she captured in a cistern. It is one of the best examples of sustainability; I found it extraordinary that all the elements fit into one photograph.

 Judy Adler’s Walnut Creek, California, garden, with on-site green waste (twigs) recycling program - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/through-the-photographers-eye-finding-a-sustainable-aesthetic/#sthash.hZmSSURc.dpuf

Judy Adler’s Walnut Creek, California, garden, with on-site green waste (twigs) recycling program

I doubt anyone would frame this picture and hang it on a wall, but, beyond the visual merits of the photograph, it’s important to let gardeners know that it’s okay to have a chicken coop, it looks fine to have gutters draining into cisterns, and bulky compost bins are satisfying features in their gardens. Function is beautiful; if we, in publishing, are to inform the rest of the world, we must be willing to show it proudly as a beautiful thing. Beautiful gardens are what publishers and readers, alike, want to see. It is well and good that many go beyond the traditional and create gardens that enhance a site for both our enjoyment and for the benefit of the ecosystem they inhabit. But we also hope for a few compliments from our friends. Utilitarian beauty may be enough for some, but visual beauty is also a good thing. The aesthetics of sustainability is an evolving one in every region. In each of my last three books—the EBMUD book, Hardy Succulents (with Gwen Kelaidis), and The American Meadow Garden (with John Greenlee)—I have been able to concentrate on western gardens. Publishers have begun to recognize the distinct challenges of gardening in different parts of the country, and Westerners are seeing gardens in print that offer them a regionally appropriate, sustainable aesthetic. Only time will tell if our current best practices result in sustainable gardens, but we are finally beginning to see gardens that will inspire us and bring balance to our dance with nature.