After restoring her century home and planning her gardens, which both align to the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, self-taught photographer Elaine Waisglass started documenting her garden’s progress with a simple digital camera. As the years passed, Elaine upgraded her camera and also began printing her own pieces using archival inks and paper. We spoke to Elaine on how her garden grows her inspiration.
Vivian Vassos: Why did you call your recent exhibition The Quest for Beauty in a Garden?
Elaine Waisglass: While creating the still life photographs for the exhibition, I was at the same time reaching back into art history and exploring the resonance of the still life pictures of the 17th century Dutch masters and the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris. Central to the Arts and Crafts movement is the concept of a quest for beauty, quickened by a sense of approaching death. That somehow became a concept central to my own pictures, as I am conscious that I work with flowers that begin to wilt the moment I cut their stems. The quintessence of beauty can be found in flowers and I wanted my photographs to explore beauty. Also, there is a mathematical theory of beauty that fascinates me, and whenever I am photographing flowers, I am simultaneously noting their geometry and proportions and I am reminded of John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic who observed that nothing is more beautiful than a line drawn by nature.
VV: You’re devoted to the Arts and Crafts movement. When you “renovated” your garden, did you study some of the flowers of the period before planting?
EW: I stumbled upon the Arts and Crafts movement when my husband and I rescued a 100 year old house that had been for sale for three years because nobody wanted it. While researching the history of the house, I learned that the architect, Eden Smith, was a devoted follower of the Arts and Crafts movement and brought the movement to Canada. After reading that he designed the house as a unity with the landscape I decided to fulfill his intention by creating an Arts and Crafts garden, according to the prescriptive book The Wild Garden, by William Robinson, published in 1860. I began by consulting with Cynthia McCarthy, a gardener who is a walking plant encylopedia and we are still working on the garden together after 17 years. We have just returned from England where we were asked to design an Arts And Crafts garden near Sherwood Forest.
VV: Your photos have an almost other-worldly quality to them, as if the arrangements are almost floating and vibrant in the shot. Do you manipulate your images to create this ethereal view?
EW: For several decades, musicians have had digital technology with tools that allow a composer to create a symphony with both natural and digitally created sounds. Visual artists did not have equivalent digital tools until a few years ago when the arrival of new digital tools became the finest thing to happen to the art world since the advent of acrylic paint in the 1960s. These tools allow artists to control every aspect of an image.
Probably I should point out here that jpegs from small point-and-shoot cameras, the sort used to record birthday parties, can’t be compared with the new and complex professional cameras, printers and software. The difference is that jpegs decide everything for you, from the number of greys to the look of the colours – whereas, professional “raw” files require the artist to make hundreds of decisions about how the final image will look.
Passionately embracing the advent of these new digital tools enabled me to create painterly photographs with the other-worldly quality you asked about.