Stop the presses ! We interrupt the regularly scheduled garden photography lessons to bring you some breaking news.  While writing a lesson in The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, controversy erupted.

Provocation in the world of gardens and art !  National scandal in “hip, pretentious art” at the Berkeley Botanical Garden where an on-site art exhibit using recycled glass tubes became an example of “phony intellectualism”.

Whimsy and provocation in Good Garden Photography is one way to bring meaning into your story.  When you take a picture, you are communicating, and this lesson is meant as an exercise to explore your garden photography looking for some fun, ways to provoke the viewer to think differently.

So I went to the Botanic Garden looking for some fun photos to illustrate my point.  To make good photos you really need an excuse, not just an opportunity to make photos.  Being in a garden with your camera is an opportunity, but having something to say will give your photo some meaning.

Gardens are important.  They have meaning.  If you are a garden photographer at any level, you are communicating.  Always think about why you are taking the picture and what you are trying to say.  It will make a much better picture.

At this moment there is no better place to find provocation and whimsy in gardens than the University Botanical Gardens at University of California, Berkeley where a Natural Discourse exhibit has been installed.

Natural Discourse is a collaboration between the Garden and a group of extraordinary artists, researchers, architects, and writers to help us think about gardens in new ways.  The exhibit during my recent visit, curated by Shirley Watts and Mary Anne Friel,  invites us to think about gardens.

I went looking for whimsy and found it written into some of the plant labels for the exhibit at UCBG.


Can’t read the plant tag?


“Arbor Ex Fossus !” the label created by poet Hazel White, refers to the Dawn Redwood tree being an ancient, prehistoric plant.  There are 25 special labels in the Garden for Natural Discourse.  Looking for these special tags is a fantastic way to explore the garden – hunting and learning.

I also knew I wanted to photograph “SOL Grotto” the now news-worthy installation by architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello who “seek to bridge the gap between the theory and practice of ecological thinking”.


Their use of light tubes, salvaged from the bankrupt solar power company Solyndra, have been placed inside a small grotto in a very carefull artful arrangement.  The grotto is constructed in the garden next to a waterfall, so not only is light brought into the grotto by the shimmering efficient tubes, but the cool air and sound of water fill the cave.


A fantastic provocative idea about how we experience a garden without actually seeing it.  What a fabulous subject for photographers who deal with almost the exact opposite experience.  We communicate by seeing, with light yes, but by seeing it differently – much differently; and never with sound or smell.

So where is the controversy  ?

It turns out a national news organization, seeking provocation, and knowing the controversy surrounding the U.S. government and taxpayer loss of money in the Solyndra bankruptcy decided this art exhibit was a very costly taxpayer funded boondoggle.  The reporter even (facetiously) suggested taxpayers should go smash it up as an act of performance art.


You can imagine the uproar now; and the Garden is getting a big uptick in attendance.  Natural Discourse is now a national event !  The nerve of those reporters !

Of course the reporter and the talking heads giggling about the report, have never seen SOL Grotto or understand its part in Natural Discourse.  How could it be called it “boring” !  Surely they  care little about what it means in regards to any “phony intellectualism” of gardens or “hip pretentious art”, they simply want an excuse to raise a muck raking political point.

But for me, I was looking for provocation for my photo lesson and this landed in my lap.

For those who want to see how this relates to The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, see lesson 1.5 Provocation and Ingrigue in the e-book (or the mini ibook of the lesson by itself) using these two photos:



Garden "bed" whimsy at Cambria Pines Lodge

To be continued…