Student Images: Maine Media Garden Photography Workshop

We had a talented, enthusiastic and supportive group that gathered in Maine during July to explore botanical and garden photography. This was mostly a field workshop, with lots of time spent in lots of gardens--both public and private. Here are a few images highlighting the work of each student. Enjoy!

A Bowing Acquaintance With Plants

…even a bowing acquaintance with flowers repays one generously for the effort expended in its achievement.
— Mrs. Willam Starr Dana, How to Know the Wild Flowers, 1893
 Echinopsis terscheckii

Echinopsis terscheckii

Plants have intrigued me as a photographic subject since my earliest days as a photographer, when I would follow my grandfather along his woodland wildflower trail, camera in hand. He would stop and bow over a trillium, mayapple or lady slipper, sharing with me its Latin name and pointing out its unique characteristics. While the Latin was lost on me at the time, I began to see plants as having individual personalities and traits—the graceful curve of a stem, the defiant behavior of an errant blade of grass, the imprints left by unfurling leaves of an agave, the dancing petals of dogwood in a gentle breeze or the piercing sharpness of a cactus spine.
When photographing an individual plant, I like to move in closely. This allows me to simplify the composition and focus on what compels me. Unless color is the key characteristic I wish to highlight, I often prefer photographing plants in black and white. It allows us to see more clearly—often exposing characteristics we might otherwise overlook.

Consider the cactus: We all know that spines are commonly found on cacti, but have you noticed the differences in their shapes; the ways in which they are clustered; their density or sparseness; whether they are long or short, straight or curled; or why some cacti don’t have them at all? The spines are often what differentiate one species from another. It's easy to see that spines help protect the cactus from predators, but can you also begin to see that they offer some shade to the cactus (by their sheer numbers, if nothing else) and slow the air circulation around the succulent stems in order to reduce evaporation?

To photograph a plant this closely, you have to slow down. It’s not like a casual stroll through the garden and a quick click of the shutter. It requires stopping, moving in close, and taking time to really study a plant. For me, that’s when photography becomes a form of meditation—the opportunity to see more deeply, to be in the moment and to let everything else go.

It's a Succulent, Not a Cactus

  Agave parryi  var.  huachecensis . ©Lee Anne White.

Agave parryi var. huachecensis. ©Lee Anne White.

I've never met an agave I didn't like, though I've learned the hard way to treat them with respect. Those spines are mean. They not only hurt when you have an accidental encounter with them, they can irritate your skin. Beyond that, I really love agaves (and not just because they are the source of tequila). What compels me about them is the way one leaf imprints upon another. They start life as tight balls and slowly open up, revealing the imprints of adjacent leaves. 

This one is an Agave parryi var. huachucensis (commonly called Parry's agave or mescal agave). It grows in rosette fashion up to 2 1/2 feet in diameter and is considered a good landscape plant in dry climates such as its native home in New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Mexico. This agave, by the way, is not the source of tequilla; that would be Agave tequilana, also known as the blue agave. And for the record, an agave is a succulent, not a cactus. A cactus is a different kind of succulent.

The Jaeger Company Recognized for Reynolda Gardens Restoration

The Jaeger Company recently received The Legacy Award from the Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). This award recognizes "a distinguished landscape architecture project completed 15 years or more ago that retains its original design integrity and contributes significantly to the public realm of the community in which it is located."

Located in Winston-Salem, N.C., Reynolda Gardens is part of the RJ Reynolds Estate, which was developed between 1906 and 1924. It is one of the few estates created in the South during the Country House Era (1890-1940), in which many American industrialists created large estates where their families could enjoy clean air, healthy food and leisure activities. The conservatory and original formal gardens were originally designed by Louis L. Miller in 1913 and later redesigned by landscape architect Thomas W. Sears. The property was managed by Katharine Smith Reynolds, the wife of Richard Joshua Reynolds.

Occupying approximately four acres, the Formal Gardens feature a Lord and Burnham conservatory flanked by three growing houses. A small greenhouse, hotbeds and heated cold frames provided addition space for growing plants, which were both displayed in the gardens and sold to the public. The Sears plan for the Sunken Greenhouse Gardens (1917) included four themed gardens: a pink and white garden, a blue and yellow garden, and two rose gardens. They also featured specimen trees, a central lawn, perennial and shrub borders, two fountains, pergolas and Japanese-style tea houses. The Fruit, Cut Flower and Nicer Vegetable Garden (1921) continued the Japanese-style design theme. This section was divided into a series of beds and borders separated by crushed-gravel paths and post-and-rail fences.

By the early 1990s, the garden plantings had shown considerable decline and the infrastructure had become unsafe. This is when The Jaeger Company, a landscape architecture and historic preservation firm based in Gainesville, Ga., was called in to help with the restoration. The construction and initial planting phase was completed in 1997 and still retains its integrity--which can be seen in these photos taken for the firm in October 2014. 

The garden is currently owned by Wake Forest University and is open to the public for enjoyment. Congratulations to Dale Jaeger and everyone at The Jaeger Company who worked on this project.

The Widely Known, But Not-So Widely Grown Cactus

The saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), with its distinctive "arms," is perhaps the most recognizable of all cacti. Yet it is not a common cactus. It only grows in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and western Sonora, Mexico, and one of the best places to see it is the Saguaro National Park, just west of Tucson.

The saguaro is a long-lived and slow-growing cactus. It can reach 40-60 feet tall, but takes a long time to reach that height. A 10-year-old saguaro may only be 1.5 inches tall. Under the right conditions--the right mix of water and temperature--they can live up to 150 or 200 years. As they mature, they often (but not always) produce branches or "arms" that tend to reach upward. A fully hydrated, mature saguaro can weigh more than 3000 pounds and is covered with protective spines. Although they are considered trees, they are much more fun to photograph than to climb. One day, I'd like to return and photograph these giants at sunset.

 All photos ©Lee Anne White

All photos ©Lee Anne White

Beauty in All Seasons

When I wear my editorial hat, I tend to seek out plants and gardens when they are at their peak and look their "magazine" best. But when I'm shooting for myself, I often prefer the off season--fall and winter when plants are losing their glory, yet showing their inner beauty and structure. And this applies whether I'm shooting outdoors or bringing something into the study. It's like when I collect shells on the beach: I prefer the worn shells to the pristine ones. And when it comes to people, I tend to be more interested in those whose faces tell a story. To me, there is great beauty in maturity. 

Squint Your Eyes and Look Closer

Most of the time when composing a photograph, we want to open our eyes and look carefully, being sensitive to all of the details in a potential composition. Sometimes, however, it helps to squint our eyes to look at things in a different way. Squinting plays down the details while emphasizing contrast, form and color.

 Thuya Gardens, Maine. Photo ©Lee Anne White

Thuya Gardens, Maine. Photo ©Lee Anne White

That's how I discovered this shot. It was a beautiful pot, but it was sitting in harsh midday light, which made it difficult to capture in its surrounding garden--at least at that particular time of day. But by squinting, I could better see what captured my interest anyway: The shape and surface of the pot, along with the dramatic shadow, reminded me of the moon. So rather than thinking of this as a container in a garden, I tried to capture this "moon" against the dark shadows of what might be interpreted as the night sky.

Film cannot capture detail in the full range of highlights and shadow that the human eye can see. If I had shot this at a "normal" exposure, I likely would have lost detail on both ends of the spectrum. But by adjusting my exposure so that the highlights were captured in more of a middle-tone, it ensured that the shadows went black, and a little burning around the edges helped give this a finished look.

From the Archives: Hestercombe Gardens

A number of years ago, I traveled to England with my good friend, landscape architect Jeni Webber. Our rather ambitious goal, as I recall, was to visit 20 classic gardens in 10 days. No doubt, we did not do any of them justice--though it was a great introduction to English gardens and we had a delightful trip. There was still time at the end of each evening to unwind at a local pub for a recap of the day's discoveries.

 Hestercombe House Formal Garden. Taunton, Somerset, England. Photo ©Lee Anne White.

Hestercombe House Formal Garden. Taunton, Somerset, England. Photo ©Lee Anne White.

While all of the gardens were impressive, my hands-down favorite was the formal, sunken garden at Hestercombe House in Somerset. A collaboration between architect Edward Lutyens and garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, this garden was commissioned in 1903. Lutyens and Jekyll often worked together. Most often, he designed the house and she designed the gardens. At Hestercombe, Lutyens's focus was the structure and construction of the garden, which was terraced and contained steps, long walls and multiple water features (wall fountain, tiered fountain and runnels). Jekyll, who was a master of both color and working with herbaceous perennials, focused on the extensive plantings. It has been described as the height of their collaboration on more than 100 projects.

The Workshop Experience


At first, we cursed our fogging lenses and worked primarily on strategies to keep our cameras dry. (Shower caps are great for this, by the way.) But once we settled in a bit, the magic started to happen. It wasn't the first time I'd photographed in cold or rain by any means, but it was the day that I truly discoverd the magic of shooting in inclement weather. Or should I say, the magic of sticking with it, despite all of the challenges, to get the shot. By the time we packed our bags and headed back to the classroom to drop off our film, we were all anxious to see the results. Indeed, they were some of the best images taken all week. They were the shots that others don't get, because others usually do sit by the fireplace on cold, drizzly days.

That stick-with-it-attitude we learned that week has come to the rescue for me on countless assignments over the years when--thanks to inclement weather, broken gear, bad timing, travel hassels, or other problems--I really wasn't sure if I'd be able to deliver the job. But rather than give up, I stuck with it--often to the point that I simply gave up approaching things the usual way and just began to play. I've always returned home with publishable work. Indeed, what turned out to be one of my most frustrating magazine assignments ever resulted in a front-cover image. Thanks, at least in part, to Brenda and the Maine Media Workshops.

I'm still a student, and still take workshops from time to time because there is always something new to learn, some new territory to explore, another instructor to inspire me to look at things a new way. As an instructor, this is what I most love to do--get students to look at things in new ways, to break out of their routine, to expand their visual vocabulary, to try something they've never tried before. We work hard and we play hard. We go where we haven't gone before. That's what a workshop should be all about.

I guess my thoughts today are two-fold: Remember that the magic often happens when you push beyond your frustration level. And if you want to experience a week of growth, consider taking a workshop from a photographer or other individual you've always admired. It's a great opportunity for creative growth.