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Gardens have provided powerful inspiration for Man Ray, Mapplethorpe and a million hobby photographers.

A garden is made of equal parts nature and artifice: It springs from the earth, and yet is defined by human intervention.

This combination of opposing forces is precisely the same that powers photography. “In a way [a garden] is a set,” writes Jamie M. Allen in The Photographer in the Garden. Co-authored by Sarah Anne McNear, it is the first book to explore this synchronicity in depth.

From the moment Kodak released the first snapshot camera in 1888, flower beds and bushes came alive with the clicks and whirrs of experimental hobbyists. Much like the domestic still lifes popularized by renaissance painters, garden arrangements are the perfect subject to practice on: Easily accessible, yet full of technical challenges and bursting with coded symbolism—provided you know how to look for it.

Allen and McNear argue that it’s wrong to write off such photographs as twee just because they are pretty. They can be political: During both world wars, photographs of “victory gardens” full of home-grown produce were used as rallying propaganda. They can also be erotic: Think of Man Ray’s 1934 photograph of a bee feeding on a sunflower, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s Tulip (1985)—the white flower resting on a thorn, subtly evoking the photographer’s more explicit images of sadomasochism.

Flowers have their own language and, as The Photographer in the Garden elegantly demonstrates, that language can be used to convey almost anything.

  • Words:
    Harriet Fitch Little
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