We’re surrounded by glossy gardening magazines and beautiful, photograph packed books but garden photography often gets overlooked. Maybe because we are so spoilt with such stunning photographs that are just there. I bought an old gardening book the other day and the contrast between it and its black and white photographs and poor quality printing with today’s gardening books is startling. I have always loved photography right from the time I got my first tiny camera when I was about 8 and, of course, I love plants so it’s probably no surprise that plant photos are quite a passion too. I recently had to find a photo of myself and after trawling through thousands of photos stored on my computer from over the last seven years I found only a handful; there were several more of Wellyman, the rest were mainly of plants.
I avidly read gardening magazines and books and yet, and I’m quite embarrassed to say this, until about 9 months ago I could have only named one gardening photographer. Thinking about it now I think it’s rather strange that whilst I could name quite a long list of gardening writers and journalists, the people whose work appears alongside the words had gone unnoticed. Sometimes you’ll come across a book or article that hasn’t any images and they don’t suffer for this but they will invariably have some sort of illustrations to accompany it, as if the words on their own aren’t enough and that our eyes crave some kind of visual stimulus.
Some of my favourite books such as the collections of Elspeth Thompson’s articles for The Telegraph and the recent Gardening series by Val Bourne lack any photographs and yet I love them. However, I am a bit of a photo-addict. For instance, I really dislike recipe books without photographs. To see the prepared dish and its appearance is what makes me want to cook. As for garden writing, I’ll admit there are elements such as the heady perfume of Viburnum bodnantense which can’t, disappointingly, be captured by a camera but there is so much about plants and the spaces we create for them that is about visuals. How dull would life be without these images capturing the light glistening on grass seed heads, frost sparkling on evergreens and water droplets captured on the leaves of Alchemilla mollis?
Over the last year I’ve met a few garden photographers and have had the pleasure of working with one of them. It has certainly opened my eyes to the skill that is involved in capturing the beauty of the plants we love so much. Botanical art has always been held in great regard but outside the circles of the garden media plant photography seems rather neglected and yet some of the best images really are beautiful works of art.
I’m so often frustrated with my own camera skills. I have a decent enough camera but lack the technical knowledge that allows me to achieve want I really want. Occasionally, I’ll take a photo I’m really happy with but this tends to be a bit of a fluke rather than any actual skill. Certainly the right camera, lenses and other equipment that are part of a professionals kit make a huge difference but it’s not as simple as having all the gear, years of training learning to understanding light, texture and form as well as depth of field, apertures, shutter speeds and all the other terms that go over my head are all prerequisites for creating great photography.
Plants have always been at the heart of photography. At the same time photography was developing in Victorian Britain so to was our understanding of plants. It’s not surprising then, that the pioneers of photography such as William Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron and Anna Atkins used plants as their subjects. The latter used a technique called cyanotyping which consisted of laying on top of photo-sensitive paper the object you wanted to capture and then exposing the paper to sunlight. The area around the material would change to a blue colour but under it would remain white leaving an image on the paper. Atkins was particularly interested by ferns. These were very basic images but must have been captivating.
Today, the increasing popularity of print media has meant that plant photographs are in huge demand but when it comes to exhibitions, landscape and portraiture still come out on top. I think this is such a shame as they are certainly just as worthy of the audience. The International Garden Photographer of the Year, in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, hold a competition every year open to amateurs and professionals alike, to find the best photographers out there. Each March the winners are announced and an exhibition is held at Kew which then tours the country. If you love plants take a look at their website and I’m sure you’ll be blown away by the images on display.
For me a visit is already pencilled into the diary for next year but in the meantime I’ll keep trying to improve my own attempts whilst making more of an effort to appreciate the work of the garden photographers whose images we see so much of and yet know so little about.
For more details of IGPOTY, how to enter and where to see the exhibition go to igpoty.com
The RHS also runs a photographic competition every year if you fancy giving it a try.
If you love plants and photography take a look at a few of these photographer’s websites for some great images. They are some of my favourites.