Picturing the Garden

Allan Mandell’s photography workshops teach students how to reveal a garden’s essence


ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS that award-winning garden photographer Allan Mandell urges his students to do is to resist the temptation of the sexy floral close-up and to look at the larger garden. “It’s harder, but that’s where you find the magic,” he says. Mandell, a soft-spoken man with a zenlike calm, has advanced degrees in both printmaking and photography. He travels the world in search of great gardens, passing up plant portraiture to take on the challenge of capturing a garden’s essence. This alchemy of translating a garden’s three dimensions onto film is no small trick, but it is what the Portland, Oregon-based Mandell teaches his eager garden photography students.

A good garden gives us a slice of the emotional, sometimes even life-altering, experience we get from hiking in the mountains or walking on an ocean beach. The finer the garden, the more intense the experience. Mandell describes the spiritual refreshment people find in nature as “feeling nature’s own mind, connecting with the spirit of the place.” What fascinates Mandell is how to express that connection through the medium of photography.

The three trips to Japan that Mandell has taken have been important steps in his own professional journey. While Japanese gardens may appear to be simple arrangements of stones, moss, and an azalea or two, the space is skillfully sculpted to give the viewer a specific, often contemplative, experience. Balance and proportion are key in these supremely symbolic gardens, so Japan proved a perfect training ground for Mandell, enabling him to refine the techniques that make his work so evocative. “I’m as much interested in the internal, what you’re feeling in the garden, as the external, what you see,” he says. “I try to get the outside and the inside world in an image. I’m not interested in the clinical, descriptive shot.rsquo;

LEARNING HOW TO LOOK-AND MORE All this talk of spirit and essence may seem far removed from setting up a tripod and shooting a photo, so, for his popular workshops, Mandell breaks his approach down into building blocks. “For me, a garden is a kinetic sculpture made up of plants, hardscape, light, and the space between objects,” he explains. All these elements come together to form a personal experience, and capturing that experience is the photographer’s goal. A first step in really seeing the garden is to distill it down to its underlying structure, which can be done by identifying its basic lines. Instead of creating a more complex picture, the levels and layers are stripped away. When you’re able to grasp a garden’s simplest lines, the spaces between objects (or plants) become as important as the objects themselves. This simplicity of line, paired with harmony of proportion, both determines the composition of the photo and reveals the garden’s essential structure.

The camera is dispassionate—it frankly records what is there. “You need to pay attention with the same intense dedication to the entire visual field, and then your images will have real power,” says Mandell. “You want to set up a photo that pulls you in and takes you on a visual journey.” Essential to Mandell’s approach, and as vital to success as the ability to discern line and texture, is the recognition that more goes into the making of a good photograph than just seeing. Cultivating an inner stillness is important: a garden photographer must be willing to slow down, stand around for hours in the rain, wait patiently for the wind to die down. It’s equally important for a photographer to educate his or her artistic tastes by listening to music and visiting galleries and museums.

I’ve followed many a photographer around a garden, in awe at the patience and artistry it takes to capture a living, growing garden on film. I’ve learned all too often that the garden I’ve seen can be nearly unrecognizable when the photos come back. The camera, unlike our eye, doesn’t judge, filter, or interpret. “Everything needs to be essential, or get it out of the photo,” says Mandell, who recommends moving limbs aside, picking up leaves, or deadheading roses when necessary. When students’ photos come back after a day of instruction, Mandell’s most frequent question is, “What is essential here?” And his most frequent piece of advice is, “Watch your edges, control your edges.rsquo;

Allan Mandell’s Tips for Photographers

1. Get a tripod—this is the fastest way to improve the quality of your shooting. Fuji Velvia, the preferred film of many professional garden photographers, is a relatively slow film, so a vibration-free setup is the key to those long exposures with maximum sharpness and depth of field. In addition, a tripod will slow you down, giving you access to another, perhaps more subtle, way of seeing.

2. Beautiful sunny days are not optimum conditions for shooting—they yield images that are too contrasty, with shadows too dark and highlights too bright. A soft, diffused light, such as high cloud cover, will yield results in much richer tones and saturated colors.

3. When composing an image, look for the underlying simplicity and harmony of proportion in the space, textures, and colors. Try to tune in on what the garden designer is expressing. Most of all, pay attention to your own experience, to how this particular garden transforms you.

4. Open the doors of all your senses—not just sight. Listen to the sounds of the natural world; feel the ground you’re standing on; smell the air. Put this sensory information into your images. Aim for sharp foreground detail that elicits a visceral response—this is the gateway to letting viewers into the visual world you have created.

5. Pay attention to the way you move in the garden. The deeper you get into “the zone” where time disappears, the more economical and smooth your movements become, like a dance. Take this attitude into your compositions. If something is not absolutely necessary, then it doesn’t belong in the image.

6. Respect for the garden and the gardener is paramount. Always request permission to shoot, to move plant tags, to do any sprucing or cleaning up, or to move hoses or any other object. Leave no trace that you were ever there, other than a lasting friendship with the garden owner. The greatest compliment you can receive is to be invited back to shoot whenever you want.

7. Look at Asian art, especially Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings and Japanese woodblock prints. Get yourself in front of original art-work in museums or galleries. Look down the path blazed by the masters of photography: Edward Weston, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Eliot Porter, and contemporary figures like Katsuhiko Mizuno and Freeman Patterson. Let yourself be influenced, let it all percolate. There is so much you can learn about photographic composition from all art forms, including music and dance, and this will help you find your own “voice” as a garden photographer.

8. Fancy gear doesn’t guarantee great photographs—your eye is the determining factor of a compelling and powerful composition. Train your eye, then learn to operate your camera, whether digital or film, on manual mode so you have control of it as a creative tool—it’s like the difference between driving an automatic and a stick shift. It may be a little more work, but you can operate with precision and have some fun along the way.

Often, photography seems to be about the equipment. Mandell never lets the gear come between himself and the garden. For his workshops, students need only a basic camera that works on manual mode, and a tripod. “The gear isn’t the thing,” says Mandell; “the vision is the thing.” (Not that Mandell doesn’t take full advantage of such equipment as a gray card to check exposure, reflectors that give a little boost by bouncing warm light onto foliage, and a diffusing screen that works like a portable cloud to soften light on a sunny day.) He shoots in medium-format, carrying with him three lenses, including a wide angle and telephoto. His camera and equipment all fit into a little backpack.


Occasionally, Mandell will issue a startlingly down-to-earth piece of advice. The best single thing you can do to raise your own photography above the clinical level, he says, is to use a tripod. It is only through a camera held perfectly still on a tripod that you can control the depth of field and the sharpness of the shot. With a simple cable release and a tripod, you become free to see the garden from different angles. But most important, the tripod slows you down. A leisurely, even dawdling, pace encourages a selective eye and opens up a world of new choices that are easily missed when you’re in a rush.

Another of Mandell’s basic tenets is respect for the garden, which means leaving no traces of yourself behind. “Stay out of the beds and borders, even if you need to get creative to find a way to get the shot,” he says. He also suggests that aspiring photographers carry around one of those little green weeding pads to encourage getting down to ground level. “Garden photography is an intuitive thing,” says Mandell. “There’s not a sign in the garden that says, ‘Stand here—this is a cover shot.’ You need to tune into the garden and the moment and be an artist—everyone can do that.” Whether or not we can all be artists behind the camera, it is sure that once you get Mandell’s “vision thing,” you’ll never see a garden in quite the same way again. H

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