The Mount: A Garden in Winter
Rich Pomerantz, who took the photographs for this season’s gardening book of choice, Great Gardens of the Berkshires, climbed onto the roof of The Mount, the Edith Wharton historic site in Lenox, to get these extraordinary shots, which are nearly as instructive as they are beautiful.
Like the protagonist at the conclusion of an Edith Wharton novel, a garden in winter is exposed for what it is, weak or strong, well-structured or not. “The winter strips away the dressing,” says Pomerantz. “When they talk about ‘garden bones’ this is what they mean. It’s easier, in a sense, in a very formal garden like this one. In a well-designed informal garden, there’s still plenty of form—lots of line, rhythm and pattern—it’s just more flowing and free form. All those elements still exist, they’re just not as obvious.”
Pomerantz teaches garden photography at the New York Botanical Garden and will conduct a workshop at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge on July 23. He is also a popular featured speaker at flower shows. “The fundamental thing I talk about is light. Photography means drawing with light; if you don’t get that, your photography is going to be weak. There is no best or worst time of day to photograph a garden—it all depends on the light that day. The conventional wisdom says shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the light is warm and angled—photographers call that ‘magic light’ because it makes everything look gorgeous. The soft diffuse light of a cloudy overcast day is also very popular, but my favorite (after magic light) is strong hazy sunlight, not totally bright, but filtered a bit. The more diffuse light of a soft overcast day flattens everything out and makes it lose all the dimensionality. I need to see some shadows, and I want some dimensionality. The toughest is clear bright sunlight in the middle of the day, but there are plenty of opportunities for good photography with that light too; you have to look. It all depends on what you are trying to say. I tell students to stop when they find what they think is a picture and figure out what is it about, what’s in front of you that caught your interest? Then concentrate on that aspect. Don’t ‘take’ the image, create it.”
Composition is crucial, as well. “Close ups are easy,” he says. “When you pull back and really try to show what the garden is like, that’s when things get more difficult. I have a class I call, ‘The Intent of the Gardener’— how to see what’s really there and get a nice pulled back picture of a garden without it ending up a jumble is really hard. I tell my students, ‘Look at it as if the plants are just sticks; what is the composition? Which goes back to the intent of the gardener.’”
What kind of camera did you use for these winter shots? “A Hassleblad on a tripod. Digital cameras shut down when it’s really cold. I also like the Hasselblad for it’s extraordinary optics. Their lenses are unmatched, even by today’s wonderful Canon and Nikon digital cameras (I’m a Nikon user).” And how was it up there on the roof of The Mount? “Unbelievably cold, especially when I was changing film.” So why go to all that trouble? “To get a unique perspective. Nowadays everyone has a sophisticated eye, and people tend to make the same photos they’ve seen elsewhere. I always want to create something that hasn’t been seen before, and gaining a unique perspective gives me the ability to do that.”