Cultivated Landscapes Through the Photographers’ Lens
Gardens played an important part in Arthur and Ninah Cummer’s family and social life. In particular, Ninah’s love for the cultivated landscape, and for outdoor spaces that promoted gatherings, contemplation, and respite, still impacts our community. It comes as no surprise how, in the aftermath of Irma’s fury, this community longed to see the Cummer Gardens, and other public parks, return to their pristine glory and purpose. Although it had been planned for a while, an exhibition about the beauty of gardens and nature, seen through camera lenses, could not be more timely.
Drawn from the vast George Eastman Museum collection in Rochester, New York, In the Garden explores the ways in which photography has recorded, interpreted, or staged the cultivated landscape in its many shapes and forms. More than one hundred images, from the 19th-century daguerreotype to today’s inkjet prints, illustrate the range of gardens that have fascinated photographers since the 1840s, and how both subject and medium stimulate one another: photographers wanted to capture nature, and nature became the perfect subject for experimentation with new techniques and processes. But more than simply being chemists, photographers became increasingly viewed as artists.
Early botanical and floral studies presented a combination of art and science. Examples by American photographer Henry Troth (1863 – 1948), reproduced in journals and books, speak to his curiosity and fondness for accuracy: each composition “dissects” a horticultural specimen so that every one of its components — flower, leaf, stem, and root — comes to life. A starkly different take on flower studies is seen in the work of Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976), a key figure in the Modernist movement, who found inspiration in her Seattle home garden. Her attention to form, light, and abstraction has given us some of the most iconic and poetic images of flowers. On the other hand, contemporary interpretations interestedly recall 17th-century still-life painting. Artist Sharon Core (b. 1965) painstakingly begins her compositions of bouquets by “growing each of the flowers in her own garden, which allows her to corporate historical varieties that she cannot find elsewhere,” as stated by the curator of the exhibition, Jamie Allen. The results are flower arrangements that showcase painterly qualities, tricking the viewer into believing that the photos are actual oils on canvas. In his large-scale photograph series entitled Blow Up (shown opposite page), Israeli artist Ori Gersht, too, looks at Dutch and French still-life painting tradition. His images capture the explosion of floral arrangements, illustrating the tension between violence and beauty.