Tag Archives: John Pfahl

matters of taste

Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for Extreme Horticulture,* a book by photographer John Pfahl who was the subject of one of this blog’s first posts. I bumped into the essay again as I was skimming through an anthology I’d read last year, Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics. Here’s a fragment that I found really interesting, part of her essay, “The Botanical Circus.”

There is a whole language of class in the garden–when they returned to the garden, flowers were redeemed with the tasteful monochromatic schemes of the likes of Gertrude Jekyll; and, as gardening essayist Michael Pollan points out, there is a whole class war of the roses, in which old roses–more fragrant, more softly shaped, less abundant in their bloom, more limited in the palette–are the exiled aristocracy. Good taste is about renunciation: you must have enough to restrain in order to value restraint, enough abundance to prize austerity. After all, it was only after aniline dyes made bright clothing universally available that the privileged stopped dressing like peacocks; spareness is often the public face of excess…Moderation, the Greek philosopher said, is pleasant to the wise, but it’s not necessarily fun. Eleanor Perényi writes in her book Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,

Looking at my dahlias one summer day, a friend whose taste runs to the small and impeccable said sadly, “You do like big conspicuous flowers, don’t you?” She meant vulgar, and I am used to that. It hasn’t escaped me that mine is the only WASP garden in town to contain dahlias, and not the discreet little singles either. Some are as blowsy as half-dressed Renoir girls; others are like spiky sea-creatures, water lilies, or the spirals in a crystal paperweight; and they do shoot up to prodigious heights. But to me they are sumptuous, not vulgar.

I’ve gone on in some posts about the necessity to rein in color choices to achieve some sort of harmony. But then I’ve written about wonderfully vulgar, er…sumptuous, plants like toloache and Echium wildprettii. I really do like a certain amount of order, but at the same I do appreciate these flaming agents of chaos. I may achieve pockets of “good taste” in the yard, but these are tempered by the bawdy and outrageous.

So what’s your garden like? Carefully coordinated and muted like a wardrobe from J. Crew or Land’s End? Or sassy and outrageous like Martha Stewart in hot pants and five-inch cha-cha heels?

A note on my links to books: The book links in all of my posts (with only one exception that I can think of) take you to abebooks.com, a site made up of hundreds of booksellers around the world, a good many of them the little brick and mortar operations that are dying out too quickly as giants like Amazon take over publishing.

coda: John Pfahl

A few posts ago I wrote about the garden photography of John Pfahl. Four of the works from this series are in the exhibition, Picturing Eden, at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts. The show runs through January 13, 2008.

The show has a lot of work in it on the general theme of paradises, whether they be gained, lost, regained or created. The show is curated by Deborah Klochko, and had its origins at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. I had almost no time to look at the work, but there were definitely some great images. I’ll try to write up something a little more extensive later…

extreme gardening

In the late 90s I was fortunate to be part of a show of photography at San Francisco Camerawork, entitled Feed, that centered on our relationship with food. One of the artists in the show was one of my photographic heroes, John Pfahl, who in the 1970s produced his funny and quirkily beautiful Altered Landscapes series. In that San Francisco show he was represented by images of compost, Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile.

The work that I’d to say a few things about are his documents of over-the-top gardenscapes, his Extreme Horticulture series.

Dr. Wadsworth's Tree

John Pfahl: Dr. Wadsworth’s Tree, Chatauqua, N.Y.

These are all beautiful, color-soaked images, most of them of the sort of gardens where “natural” isn’t a word that would immediately spring to mind. The raw plant materials are often gorgeous, but they’re sheared, arranged and manipulated in ways where the hand of the gardener or designer is in-your-face obvious. Often gardens like that give me the creeps. They and talk to a culture where a country’s President is often shown on his Crawford, Texas ranch, clearing brush, like he’s some sort of representative of good humanity battling the evil forces of nature that want to overrun our boundaries. Most of Pfahl’s gardens are testosterone gardens, gardens all about control, gardens all about domination. But at the same time, they’re often beautiful or funny in their overmanicured way.

Bare Trees and Topiary

John Pfahl: Bare Trees and Topiary, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Espalier Demonstration

John Pfahl: Espalier Demonstration, Longwood Gardens, Kensett Square, PA

Pfahl Getty Garden

John Pfahl: Cactus Garden, J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California

Maybe I’m overgeneralizing, but the East Coast gardens pictured seem heavy into shaping plants into topiaried sculptures. It’s a heavily European thing–Just think of the immaculately-worked gardens at Versailles. The Western gardens seem to show a little more interest in and respect for the materials. Plants are placed where the designer wants them, but they seem to be chosen more for what they can do in that location, rather than what can be done to them. The arrangements of cactus and succulents at the Getty, for instance, show clear thought about where the plants were placed. But the plants are allowed more to be themselves. (And I wonder if that freedom somehow also translates into freedoms that people are allowed to have…) Besides, have you ever tried to prune a cactus?

The tension of natural tendencies versus control is one that’s always interesting to me. Nature often isn’t convenient, and it’s often never where we want it to be. Scraping a hillside to put in suburban housing and pulling up an errant weed are part of the same continuum. But where do you draw the line about what’s good and what’s bad? Is keeping a garden inherently better than bulldozing native scrub to build more mcmansions? I think the answer is yes, but the question is a complicated one. There’s economics, notions of justice, respect for living things, and all sorts of other things that have to be considered. It’s an intriguing question that resides not far below the surface of John Pfahl’s photographs.