Portrait of Page Dickey From the Book
Editorial Portrait Photography for the Garden Conservancy’s Book “#OpenDays25: A Quarter Century of America’s Gardeners and Their Gardens.”
Over the course of the last twelve months, I have had the pleasure of working with the Garden Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization, documenting editorial portrait photography of people in their gardens across the United States. This long term project culminated into a recently published book: “#OpenDays25: A Quarter Century of America’s Gardeners and Their Gardens.”
The Garden Conservancy’s mission is “to preserve, share and celebrate America’s garden and diverse gardening traditions for the education and inspiration of the public.”
The book celebrates the 25th anniversary of their beloved Open Days program which “provides opportunities to visit the country’s most exciting, creative, and innovative private gardens.”
“This beautiful 66-page oversize book, with sophisticated drawings by Marian McEvoy and stunning photography by Christine Ashburn and Brian Jones, culminates a year’s efforts to explore and celebrate the gardens and people who have made Open Days possible”
The soft covered book includes fourteen of my garden editorial portraits across eight U.S. states: New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado, and Kentucky.
This was an incredible project to be a part of. I thoroughly enjoyed getting a glimpse of each of the gardener’s lives along the way and photographing them within the landscapes they created. In fact, photographing real people in their natural landscape is what I enjoy most. Editorial portrait photography on location requires a creative problem-solving skillset. You have to hunt for light and composition in a new place and then resolve it in a photo depicting a subject. I like this challenge. I think gardeners also appreciate being challenged and relying on their creative problem-solving skillset – whether it be to develop plants adaptive to the semi-arid climate in Denver or researching ways to promote toxin-free landscapes in Long Island.
Each garden I photographed was uniquely different. Some gardens were in sharp contrast to each other. For example, both Bunny Williams and Edwina von Gal’s garden challenged my perception of what a garden could be – in completely different ways. Bunny Williams’ garden defied my expectations in its grandness. Her garden was laid across a 15-acre grand estate that included a pool house, conservatory, and an aviary. Bunny’s estate was beyond what I could imagine a manicured garden to be.
In sharp contrast was Edwina von Gal’s ecological garden on a protected salt marsh in East Hampton, NY. For Edwina, the art of landscaping is in its symbiosis with the natural environment and toxin-free. The lawn that was once in the front of her property is now a magical seaside meadow. Like her garden, Edwin was also thoughtful and natural.
On the North Fork of Long Island, the Garden Conservancy’s Associate Director of Communications, Lori Moss, and I visited Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith’s garden and nursery at Landcraft Environments. When we arrived I wandered in one direction to scout portrait locations and Lori wandered in another. While scouting, I could hear Lori in a distant part of the garden squealing with delight as she uncovered plant species she had never seen in person before. This was the first large scale private garden I had ever experienced. I was touched by the attention to detail as I wandered around the four-acre gardens. There was so much beauty to uncover and not a single weed to be found.
A couple of the gardens I visited were surprisingly tucked away in quiet suburban neighborhoods. Upon viewing the front of the house you would never imagine the quaint paradise that resides in the backyard. Such was the case with Shobna Vanchiswar’s garden tucked in Westchester New York’s residential Chappaqua neighborhood. Her garden might be modest in size but it packed a spicy punch filled with vibrant colors and a wonderful pergola covered terrace that beckoned you to stop and linger.
Another residential garden I visited was outside Milwaukee, WI. Here Dale Sievert’s backyard Japanese style oasis was focused on moss. Dale is a passionate moss gardener. In fact, he jokingly asked Lori Moss, at the Garden Conservancy, to marry him so he could take on her surname. I still laugh every time I think of this.
Another Wisconsin garden located in the Milwaukee area was at the ancestral home of Lynde Uihlein. This peaceful garden, named Afterglow Farms, was started by Lynde’s grandparents. You could feel the history on the property and in the gardens that harkened back to a simpler time.
Panyoti Kelaidis’ garden is located where I spent most of my childhood – Denver Colorado. In the many years, I spent living in Denver, I don’t recall ever seeing a large scale garden in Denver’s semi-arid climate. Panyoti’s acre and a half garden opened my eyes to a Denver I had never experienced before. Gardening at such a high altitude with such extremes of heat and cold most certainly has its challenges. However, Panyoiti’s’ determination and scholarly scientific analytical approach to alpine gardening has proved it is not only possible but also remarkably beautiful.
In Illinois, I visited and photographed landscape designer Craig Bergmann’s garden outside his Lake Forest home and design offices. This garden felt the most architectural with paths leading to multiple outside “rooms”. My dearest childhood friend was from nearby and helped me with this shoot. We were both in awe of his garden and his graciousness.
I was overwhelmed by Bruce Gangawer’s magical garden and nursery in New Hope, PA. Bruce’s 32-acre property includes a pond, a hobbit house, and a Japanese bridge garden where I experienced my first Lotus flower. In addition, Bruce’s gentle nature extends to animals as well. In my tour, I encountered peacocks, dogs, and sheep.
I was captivated by Micheal Judd and his sweet family at their permaculture paradise, Long Creek Homestead, outside of Frederick, MD. Here Micheal and his family cultivate a food forest and mushrooms and live in symbiosis with their land. I was so charmed by this family, I insisted on doing a family portrait as well.
My favorite garden also happened to be the closest to me in Katonah, NY. Barbara Isreal’s garden was vast and dotted with her antique garden collections. Although the garden was mostly formal there did not feel a pretense to it. The garden also well matched the house and area. What I enjoyed the most was its balance. It had a symmetry, a flow, and a focal point that both excited and calmed me. Barbara was especially gracious and approachable.
It was also a great pleasure to visit Hitch Lyman at his home garden in Ithaca, NY in early spring 2020. Hitch’s garden showcases snowdrops. Hitch’s 1848 Greek Revival home and garden temple were regal, quirky, and very warm. Yep, like Hitch himself. Hitch offered me a wonderful homemade dinner when we finished photographing. It was such a charming experience. Additionally, Hitch offered me some beautiful snowdrops to take home. I am happy to report that they thrived in my garden.
The most memorable experience I had was visiting Jon Carlotis in Lexington, KY. I arrived at his revived home tucked away in a downtown neighborhood as scheduled. I knocked on his front door numerous times but no one answered. However, I could hear a group of people enjoying themselves from inside. I gave up with the knocking and walked in.
I found Jon standing at the helm of his large round dining table entertaining and feeding about ten people. Jon had a fundraiser set for earlier in the day and it appeared to be still going strong when I arrived. What else would you expect from the man touted as America’s best party host? Jon saw me come in and, above the chatter and laughter that filled the room, motioned for me to sit at the table. A drink was poured and food quickly filled the plate before me – including the best cornbread I ever had.
Within moments the all at the table had warmly introduced themselves. From that point on it was like jumping onto a moving train. Jon’s charm brought us all quickly together and it was one of the most charming but completely unexpected evenings I ever had. And yeah, his garden is charming too.
What I learned emphatically most from this editorial portrait project is that Gardners are really cool people. They are quirky, practical, and yet fiercely passionate folk. They are also very kind and gracious. It was such an honor to be welcomed into their magical worlds during this project.
You can check out a digital copy of the full anniversary book online here:
You can also buy a copy here:
You can check out more of my editorial work here: www.ChristineAshburnPhoto.com
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