Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Still Lifes: Deck Garden

Italian eggplants, Macdonell Ave. Toronto, 2000

IN 1999 I MOVED OUT OF THE PARKDALE LOFT I'D LIVED IN FOR MORE THAN A DECADE. I lost the darkroom and studio I'd relied on for so much work, but the consolation prize was that my girlfriend (now wife) and I had a rooftop deck - outside space I hadn't had anywhere I'd lived since moving out of my mother's house. Our container garden on the deck was pretty modest for the first year (see photo below) but by the second year we were getting ambitious, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, lettuce and tomatillos in addition to herbs and flowers.

Deck garden, Macdonell Ave., spring 1999

At around the same time, a monograph was published in the UK - Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones - that inspired me to do a new round of still life work, mostly using subjects we were growing in our container garden on the deck. Jones' story was a preview of what would happen a few years later with Vivian Maier - an unknown amateur photographer (born in Wolverhampton in 1866; died in Lincolnshire in 1959) whose life work was discovered by a photograph collector in a flea market in Bermondsey in 1981. Jones had spent his life working as a professional gardener on private estates, photographing the products of his labours and, possibly, offering his services to document the work of other gardeners.

Charles Jones, Beet Globe, 1895-1910

The trunk of prints was all that was left of Jones' work; later, a granddaughter would recall him using his glass plate negatives to make cloches for young plants. I was already a big fan of the still life work of photographers like Karl Blossfeldt, Josef Sudek and (naturally) Irving Penn, but discovering the Jones monograph gave me a whole new wave of inspiration at a time when my main business - editorial photography - was contracting, and I needed a reason to take out my cameras and shoot.

Poppy bud, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Chinese eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Pickling cucumber, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000

With no more access to a studio, I mostly shot on the deck, or by a small window in the kitchen of our flat in the Victorian house around the corner from my old loft. I occasionally pulled out my strobes, but mostly I shot with available light and a bunch of home made light modifiers, using a collection of backdrops - handmade Japanese paper, a tabletop I'd made from old weathered barn boards - I'd built up over the years in my old studio.

I did almost all the work on a Rolleiflex with a close-up filter and a tripod, carefully racking back and forth the focus knob to find the sweet spot in the very narrow depth of field this set-up involved. I might have hoped that I could turn all of this into portfolio work - I've written before that I was trying to break into the food and lifestyle market, the only one that seemed to be thriving at the time - but I'm pretty certain almost nobody has seen any of this work until now.

Long peppers, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Chinese round mauve eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
Italian eggplant, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000
French breakfast radishes, Macdonell Ave., Toronto, 2000

I spent most of 2000 shooting still lifes out on the deck, using what we were growing almost all of the time, occasionally drafting in something we'd bought in the market around the corner when there was nothing to harvest. My fiancee grew up in the country and had tended little garden plots when her rental had a backyard, but I hadn't grown anything in dirt since I was a boy. Taking these photos was exciting, but so was growing our own food out on the deck - a hobby we'd abandon briefly when our next flat came without any outside space, but returned to enthusiastically when we bought a house with a backyard from an Italian widow who gardened seriously.

I remember carefully watching as things grew, planning the shots I'd take as things ripened and started to bloom. I have a very strong memory of these French breakfast radishes, harvested in late spring and photographed with the potting soil still on them. We'd slice them up for a salad a few minutes later; I hope we used the tops as well - they're peppery and a little bitter, and give some depth to a bowl of greens when you don't have any dandelion or chicory to mix in with the romaine.

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