Glimpses At The Conservatory: A Photographic Project – By John Pemberton

During long winter months I am drawn to make images, it’s a need.  As short days of dreary tenor envelop, the local conservatory draws me in.  Once inside:  Settle the mind, breathe in the scent of life that defies a dead season and lose yourself in the cacophony of green monochromic textures layered upon each other.  In that visual tapestry lies the substance which brings life to the flourishes of color.  Sense it, feel it, capture it and then bring it to life so you can share it.

Garfield Park, Indianapolis

Texture fascinates me.  The sensation of touch, the act of feeling to bring the fabric of a surface to life is a subconscious and underappreciated experience of being.  Conveying the sense of texture is elemental in my photography.  Using two dimensions to capture what exists in three and then using the power of contrast and light to make the textures of a moment come alive for a viewer in all its depth and power is a core goal of my work.

Glimpses at the Conservatory is the culmination of this work.  Collected over several years at 10 different botanical conservatories, this collection represents my best efforts to bring the visual feel of these places alive to the viewer.

One day in early January 2012 I received a text from a friend.  She had been let go from her job and was feeling predictably crappy and down.  It was January and cold, I had been planning to go to Garfield Park conservatory (Indianapolis) to take pictures of flowers.  I invited her to tag along, we’d get lunch afterwards.  Perhaps it would cheer her up.  I had never been to a conservatory before.  In my mind, I was going to take pictures of beautiful flowers.

That’s not what happened.

I ended up with pictures of flowers, but looking back at the contents of the memory card, I had discovered something else to be fascinated by.  Two thirds of my images were of leaves.

My existence has a stochastic tendency to it.  I don’t plan much and when I do, plans are always subject to revision.  I am drawn to meticulously organized and planned things out of respect and curiosity.  One day I will find that daily organizer that will make sense of the chaos, but on that day 10 years ago the leaves found me.  The structure, patterns and texture suggested an organized ecosystem; while the inclusion of random streaks of color, intrusions of water droplets, intermingling of other plants, insects and death reflected an existence not removed from our own.  In the green places, there was a new world to explore.

I was less than a year into owning my first digital camera.  Even though I had been active in the days of film, I hadn’t photographed anything with seriousness for at least 10 years before getting that Olympus PEN EP-L1.  The images of that day are all in .jpg format, I was just starting to learn how to use the tool.  Two images were the keepers of the day.  A depth of field study of drops on a leaf and the other a close up of a large Anthurium bloom.  Together, they planted a seed.

Garfield Park, Indianapolis
The first keeper from a conservatory

Winter afternoon shoots at Garfield became part of a seasonal rotation of places I photographed in the following years.  Eventually, I figured out there were other conservatories easily visited as daytrips.  Krohn in Cincinnati came first followed by Froellinger Freimann in Fort Wayne.  Both were larger than Garfield and they had desert rooms.  A new language of textures was added to the palette.  I was still seeing, shooting and processing in color.  It wasn’t until 2015 that I desaturated my first leaf.

Franklin Park Conservatory, Columbus, OH
A pointed new language

The point when I began to understand these images as an expression was during a visit to Phipps Botanical Conservatory in Pittsburgh in November 2017.  I had spent the morning walking around the surrounding neighborhood before I went to the conservatory.  It was warm inside.  I became a little light headed and lost in a fog.  I looked up through the leaves of a palm tree.  The difference of light between the sky and the leaves was so bright my eyes had trouble focusing.  There was something ethereal in the moment.

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh
Searching for Estella

The feeling took me back to scenes in the 1998 version of Great Expectations where Finn wanders through the gardens of Mrs. Dinsmoor’s overgrown jungle of an estate, his senses overwhelmed.  I lifted my OMD M5 up, not paying too close attention to where the focus was within the mass of leaves, and took a picture.  A few days later when I processed the image, it made sense to go black and white, the scene was monochromatic to begin with.  It was the texture and feel that mattered.

I started to look back through previous conservatory visits for images that would group well with that image.  I took a new sense of purpose in visits to Garfield, Krohn, Franklin Park (Columbus, Oh) and Froellinger Freimann.  I kept adding images to the collection.

In 2017, I walked into Phipps without a clear voice for the images I was making, but after a moment of inspiration, I left with one.  Phipps was the most impressive conservatory I had yet to visit.  In March 2020, I was about to take the informal project to a different level.

Frankin Park Conservatory Columbus, OH
Isolation during a cold season

Garfield Park (Chicago) was on the itinerary, but an unfamiliar menace was lurking.  Rumors of a pandemic were growing.  Cases were seen in Seattle and New York.  The rest of the country was waiting with baited breath.  On March 11, 2020 we took the North Shore Limited from the Chesterton Station into Millenium Station.  The train was nearly empty.  We rode the green line of the El to the park.  Apprehensive passengers looked around at each other trying to figure out who was the typhoid Mary amongst us.

The conservatory had visitors, but nowhere near crowded.  Once inside, it took what seemed like an eternity for the fog to evaporate from the lens of the PEN-F.  The conservatory had no end.  There were no seasonal displays to distract from the focus of the day.  I have been on long hikes in the Rockies, Alps, and Olympic mountain ranges, yet rarely had I felt so spent after the three hours spent composing, photographing and walking through Garfield(C) that day.

Garfield Park Chicago
A season of change was on the horizon

Two days later on our way home, we spent three hours stocking up on groceries and sundries at a Meijer supercenter.  The next day, the whole country seemed to lock down.

The pandemic brought incremental stress and time commitments required to transition the university classes I teach from in person to asynchronous modalities, but it also brought leisure time without a clear sense of purpose.  Those things I did regularly before were of uncertain availability now.

In that time, I started to think about my photography with purpose.  I sought to find order within it, curate it and share it.  I began a new website to share what I was assembling.  As I began to link elements onto my portfolio page, the second project gallery linked was the conservatory gallery.

I also sought other ways to improve my work.  I took this opportunity to have one of my projects critiqued.  I chose the Conservatories.

Garfield Park, Indianapolis
A familiar composition

The feedback was good, but the critique revealed something I had not seen nor realized – a lack of originality in composition.  Many of the images were of a texture or pattern with a disruptor placed on one of the “thirds” blocks.  5 of the 10 images presented were essentially the same picture.  It forced me into trying to see differently every time I composed an image.

With that charge, as society opened up in spring 2021, I sought out familiar places that were close by:  Garfield (I), Krohn and F/F.  I was seeing in newer and different ways.  My go to gear for these shoots had become my OMD M1/mk2 and 25mm F1.2 lens.  Early fall of 2021 I took a couple longer trips:  Franklin Park in Columbus, Oh and Belle Isle in Detroit.

Franklin Park, Columbus
New ways of seeing

Franklin Park has at its core a small, older conservatory that has been surrounded and engulfed by a new modern one.  It has added artwork to the presentation, Chihuly is all around.

This is in contrast to my home conservatory.  Garfield (I) is frugally operated by the city parks department.  There are two rooms, one permanently planted.  That room reminds me of a very large, overgrown planted sunroom.  Admission is $3.  It’s a wonderful Jungle.  That’s why I loved my day at Belle Isle so much, the Anna Scripts Whitcomb Conservatory has the same over grown sunroom feel but with the size to match Krohn and Franklin Park.

Belle Isle, Detroit
A wonderful jungle

Detroit has been a city struggling over the past 50 years.  Belle Isle, as a city park, has suffered with the city.  Not long ago, gangs from the city would round up dogs, let them loose in the park at night and have pistol hunts.  When the hunts were over, the bodies were tossed into the Detroit river.  Needless to say the workers who maintain the conservatory are angels, both at caring for plants and replacing panes of glass.  After the city went bankrupt a few years ago, the state of Michigan took over stewardship of the park.  The city is finding its way back to life and the State is investing in the park to make it the destination it once was.  That day in October was a lot of fun.

Belle Isle, Detroit
A perfect day in focus

When I got home and started processing images from Belle Isle and Franklin Park, I grew frustrated.  My skills were failing my ability to capture composition as felt in the moment.

New techniques were needed.

Garfield Park, Indianapolis
Expanding dynamic range with HDR

Earlier in the summer I had learned to incorporate handheld HDR into a Black and White work flow to handle the dramatic dynamic range often encountered in the conservatory.  After Franklin Park and Belle Isle, I added focus stacking to save the bokeh of shooting wide open while ensuring focus on the immediate subject.

Cleveland Botanical Garden, Cleveland
Focus stacking a subject with depth

2021 closed with visits to more conservatories.  Two were new and one was a familiar place.  My university (Butler) takes the entire week of Thanksgiving off.  This gives me time to take a short trip before the end of the semester crush.  This year we went to New York and to the New York Botanical Garden and Haupt Conservatory.

Our train from Stamford stopped at Fordham, but our initial plan of walking through Fordham University to the botanical garden was thwarted by covid restrictions.  We had to walk around campus to the botanical garden main gate.

New York Botanical Garden, New York
Anticipation builds as I approach the Haupt Conservatory

Haupt is the largest of all conservatories visited for the creation of this project.  It was the week before the holiday season officially started but the winter toy train show was open for business and the building was crawling with kids and parents.  It was a bit of a struggle keeping focus and staying in a zone.

My primary lens is the 25mm F1.2, but I cannot focus stack with it so I also carried around my 12 – 40 F2.8.  During a lens swap, I struck up a conversation with a worker culling leaves.  She was happy to see someone there for the plants and not the toy trains!

I made 800 images that day.  Slight rotations one way or another make a big difference in whether I like how images are positioned in a frame.  I don’t like cropping unless I go with a square format in post.  I don’t always get a good feel for having selected the best DOF until I get home.  In the end, I culled more than she did.

New York Botanical Garden, New York
Violence in an angry season

Finally, between Christmas and New Year’s I planned a return to Phipps in Pittsburgh where the thought of a conservatory project began.  Tickets were pre-sale and much to my surprise, sold out for the next day.  Not sure what to do I did some searching and found that the Cleveland Botanical Garden was about three hours away and its Glasshouse was open.  Problem solved.  That evening I bought tickets for Cleveland on Tuesday and Phipps on Wednesday.  My trip to the Carrie Blast Furnaces would have to wait until my next visit to the steel city.

Cleveland is probably better for the gardens in a warmer season, but the chocolate chip cookies in the café were very tasty.  With that said, a seed was planted during my visit which I will mention a bit later.

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh
Outside, looking inwards.

Phipps was a tremendous day.  As I walked from room to room I lamented how far the project had come.  I found myself using several technical and compositional skills acquired since my last visit four years ago. For the first time, from my street work, I fused the practice of using reflections into the conservatory compositions.  Overall, It’s been a journey of growth through a difficult time.

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsuburgh
Pittsburgh is the home of Phipps Conservatory and The Golden Triangle

It feels like Spring is the time to set a hard stop for this project.  I have a full collection gallery.  A proper culling and sequencing will require making difficult cuts, but that is as it should be.

A handful of shoots remain planned.  Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids looks like an impressive location.  I will make it back to Garfield Park (C), two years after the last visit, when the world seemed on the brink.  I am sure to hit the home place, Garfield Park (I) before the winter is over.

Once those images are made and added to the gallery, curation begins, as will birthing the final vision of this project into the world.  A small set of these images has been shown in the Nature Center at Holliday Park here in town.  Building on this, I have contemplated a show of prints, shown at conservatories themselves.  Many of these institutions have alternative spaces that would be ideal, particularly paired with a Zine or card set made available in the giftshop.  This is my first time ever thinking about such things.  Suggestions are welcome.

You can see the un-curated, un-sequenced collection gallery for Glimpses at the Conservatory HERE.

With a hard stop, it gives me time to contribute to other ongoing projects and revive one that has been on pause.  I have a new skill set from this one to bring to it.

Once the coming summer comes and goes, I will be back in the conservatories.  This time with a new project in mind.  During my recent visit to Cleveland I made an image that I could not desaturate.  It would be ruined if I did.  It has me pondering the role and meaning of color in the cycle of life.  A harbinger of fertility, birth, growth, maturity and finally death.  The transition of color tells a story of transitions.  That’s a story I want to investigate and capture.

You can find me on my Site, Twitter and 500px

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8 thoughts on “Glimpses At The Conservatory: A Photographic Project – By John Pemberton”

  1. John, thank you.

    You have given me inspiration. I’m now shooting mainly black and white film so focus stacking, hdr etc don’t apply. I shoot mainly architecture and portraits and now I’m definitely going to approach those subjects differently.

    1. Jeff, I am humbled my writing can be an inspiration! I shoot a mix of digital and film, though volume currently favors digital. I intend to follow up here with some of my film work in the next few weeks.

      BTW, that image of yours, the winding trail through the fog and woods, is magical!

  2. John, Wonderful article and pictures! I spent nearly three years in Pittsburgh shooting a Nikon D750. I frequented Phipps, and now I’m inspired to go back through those images. I’m back in central North Carolina these days, where no such indoor gardens exist that I know of. But we do have wonderful outdoor gardens here, so I’m eagerly waiting for spring with a D850 now and many different film cameras.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      I spent three years in Pittsburgh during my younger years. Having come from a two dimensional city, Pittsburgh was a revelation. While off the beaten track, the dimensionality and textures of the city are a photographer’s playground. I make it a point now to return at least once a year to make pictures of some sort.

      I love the Gorilla and Mother horse images in your gallery!

  3. John, your story definitely encompasses many of the aspects of a personal photo project. Sometimes the original intent can be altered by the actual results. What we learn individually from the process is not always about cameras and images but also something about ourselves. This personal learning journey can have an impact across so many other parts of our life, not just our photography skills. Sometimes we think we have discovered some buried or unknown interest in a certain subject but I’m not so sure about who discovered whom. I think there is a lot more at play when we find ourselves drawn to certain subject matter. Your next iteration of this project, the color of life and death, sounds quite interesting as well.

    I spent eight years documenting a stairwell in a commercial office building and those images are some of my most personally fulfilling. Keep pressing in and what you create and discover, both personally and technically, has yet to be realized.

    Thanks for sharing and letting us share, in your personal journey of discovery.

    1. Thank You very much Bill.

      Having a long term project like this has been instrumental in developing my voice as a photographer. The techniques and skills we develop along the way expand our vocabulary with which to communicate the message we want to deliver.

  4. Very nice! Great write up. Have you seen the photos of Edward Weston a 20th century photog in California. He became famous for pictures of indivual vegetables. He was a contemporary of Ansel Adams.

    1. Thank You Fred.

      One of the things I really like about Weston is his variety in genre and subject matter. I photograph a number of different genres and find that lessons learned in one area expand my abilities in another. Cheers!

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