A Glass House

“Photography is as much a gateway to the inner world of the photographer/viewer as it is to the beauty displayed in the outer world.  A garden is a setting for having this kind of experience on multiple levels – simultaneously sensual, aesthetic and spiritual.”

Allan Mandell, Photographer

Last week I read about a Victorian style conservatory in a park about an hour south of Seattle. Glass houses, where plants thrive in close proximity and perfume the air with possibility, are among my favorite places to explore with a camera. I love the way they transform the immediate environment – it’s like taking a quick trip to a tropical paradise.

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Years ago a friend’s son got me a temporary job at the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory – a dream position. I didn’t care about the grunt work hauling cuttings with a wheelbarrow through the houses, or the times my backside was riddled with cactus spines from weeding in the cactus beds. I was happy to be part of maintaining one of the grandest conservatories in the world. But I digress….

I drove down to Tacoma to check out the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory. It is quite small, but lovingly cared for.  With a central dome and just two wings, the space is packed with plants. There are tall trees hung with vines, Spanish moss and other epiphytes, flower displays, and the usual suspects  –  orchids, bamboo, tree ferns, agaves, etc.  A water feature is tucked into a corner where a tinkling stream tumbles over fern-framed rocks into a dark pool.  The swirling water flashes orange and white with koi. One elegant cream-colored fish, an ogon butterfly koi, steals the show. Its sail-like fins and tail curl and eddy the water like a magician flicking his wrists.

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I decided to photograph the koi with a long shutter speed to convey the mesmerizing blur of forms and colors churning the water.

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There’s something about conservatories that always inspires me. They keep me focused on something I love – the astonishing, delightful multiplicity of plant forms.

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Bamboo provided an opportunity to experiment with intentional blur. I moved the camera in various ways, while keeping the shutter open for about a half a second.

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Leaves of the ground cover below created a tapestry pattern. I converted the photo to black and white later. Spanish moss inspired me to use an in camera filter called Key Lines – that image is pretty much straight out of the camera. Another in camera filter plus processing in LR, was used for the black and white fern photo.

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Some plants warrant a more straightforward approach.

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Spanish moss (not a moss at all, but an epiphyte member of the Bromeliaceae) is so plentiful in the conservatory that one clump was wrapped around a metal bracket to get it out of the way.  The shop has strands of it for sale!  Spanish moss still reminds me of childhood Easter vacations with my grandparents on an island off the coast of Georgia, where it grows profusely on huge old live oaks. The plant has no roots, absorbing nutrients and moisture through tiny scales on the surface of the strands. I came to love it, and brought a clump home to my apartment the last year I went to the island. I knew enough to keep it near the shower where it could have a humid environment but still, it didn’t last more than a few months. Technically, it doesn’t depend on oak trees (or telephone wires!) for anything but support and closer proximity to the light, but I think something was missing chez moi. Maybe having other plants nearby would have helped maintain more consistent humidity and temperature.  In a similar way, I think conservatory plants benefit from growing together.

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Speaking of growing, I am working on growing my camera skills and focusing my aesthetic. To that end, I’m relying on and paying more attention to the community of other photographers online, and balancing that with time alone. Also, I’m focusing on a few projects – one is a series of photos looking through windows, especially fogged up greenhouse windows.

I walked around the conservatory outside to see if there were any fogged up windows with plants close behind them (pressing against them is best).  Yes! I found a place around back where the jungle of plants pushed up against the windows.

That will be for another post, but here’s one look at the inside, from the outside.

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37 comments

  1. We love the New York Botanical Garden but no matter how many trips we make, we remain fairly clueless about all the plant species. Your knowledge betrays your passion. Love the idea of an “outside looking in” point of view, will look forward to seeing more!

    • No need to know what they are unless identification interests you. I was a docent there for a brief time, too, and I hated it, frankly, because it seemed no one really paid much attention, or if they did, they paid too much attention to my words and lost the experience of being there with the plants. That made me think there’s no need for docents, just allow people to experience things their own way. Thanks for your thoughts, once more…I appreciate it.

  2. I’m so taken with that bit of Spanish moss intertwined with the other little green tendril. And I laughed at the last in the fish series. It looks so much like cigarette smoke, it took my back to your previous post, and my “photography noir” imaginings. What I can’t quite figure out is why I find your first photo so compelling. I think it’s the contrast between the straightforward, utilitarian entrance, and the sweet chaos of plants inside. It’s a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright meets Henri Rousseau.

    • That little curl came out nicely, didn’t it? Yes, the koi tail looks like smoke – I bet someone could do a study on the dynamics of smoke moving through the air vs the dynamics of a fish tail moving through water: commonalities and differences. Shall we collaborate on that in our spare time?
      The first photo was actually taken in a different conservatory, but I figured that didn’t matter. It’s pretty ordinary, isn’t it, but somehow it expresses that sense of inside/outside, contained/unfettered that hits you when you visit conservatories. You describe it perfectly – Wright vs. Rousseau. It’s always good to read your comments!

  3. I am fascinated by fish moving images and that bamboo is … wow! A sensation by diaphane, by floatation, by overlap in of images that creates a special, unique atmosphere …

    • Thank you so much – the bamboo especially is unpredictable, and you can’t really see on the small LCD screen what they’re going to look like on a normal screen, so you just keep trying different combinations of movement and camera adjustments. Then in processing, you can make further changes – more experimenting. I was pleased with them, so I really appreciate your comments!

  4. Great idea with great results: photographing the koi in low shutter speed. Your first and last shots in this post capture (beautifully) the beckoning of the conservatory greenhouse experience for me. You make me remember that the college has a greenhouse right here in Oberlin. Haven’t been there in years. May be about time. And your first (beautifully simple!!!) photo of the Spanish moss reminds me to go with my lens wide open.

    • Oh, please go over to the Oberlin greenhouse and check it out. You never know what you’ll find. UW (Univ of Washington) has quite a large one, that I was able to visit with a photography group about four years ago, when I was new to the area. No more photography groups (too much about gear) but I’ve been thinking of calling them to see if I can visit on my own. That close up was with a 60mm macro lens at f4. Have a good week, Linda!

  5. That second to last image of the koi made me think of a red fox lost in the smoke from the image below it! 🙂 It’s almost a shock to see your straightforward shots given the marvelous imaginings you’ve been presenting for our viewing pleasure. But they’re all delightful in their own special way. You almost tempt me to get a bit more adventuresome.
    …perhaps someday I’ll get back to snapping things… we got a respectable offer today! 😀

    • I’m glad you’re able to cope with the slightly schizoid swings between abstract and straightforward. Please, let me tempt you to break a few rules! Congrats on the offer – the sooner this phase is over, the better, I’m sure! Happy weekend to you – yeah, I’m jumping the gun. Because I can. 🙂

  6. Lovely pictures, you have a real affinity for plants. Things to talk about. First >>> grow that aesthetic – I look forward to the results! And while you’re thinking of steamy greenhouse windows, I’m thinking of the same with winter bus windows! Love the koi pics, esp the 3rd and 4th down, and with the motion blurred bamboos, for an unknown reason, the 3rd one especially hits me. And I think I remember Spanish Moss on the trees in the Mt Kenya forests, but it might have been something else. Also love the orchid. A 🙂

    • An affinity for plants is a good way to put it. Or how about floraphillia? I think that works. It’s always been that way, since I could walk. See them, smell them, listen to them, touch them – eat them! And photograph them (I used to draw them too). We both are fascinated with windows and scenes that aren’t quite what they seem, right? I just read that Tillandsia usneoides is a New World species – naturalized in Australia and French Polynesia, but not Africa. Must have been something else with a similar look. Thanks for your comments as always. (I think the 3rd & 4th koi images are a little more emotionally resonant, a little less intellectually clever, if that makes any sense).

      • The thought of listening to plants – especially if you mean over and above their rustling in the wind – is wonderful, and I’m right in there with that. And yes, that’s something – the scenes that aren’t quite what they seem – we’re certainly both fascinated by. Emotionally resonant, re the koi pics, sounds good to me! A 🙂

  7. Hi Lynn,

    the long shutter speed suits the koi very well, as it suits your photos. Again, you present a gorgeous series of pictures. Thank you so much for sharing!


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