More than a Rock: Photographing Kyoto’s Gardens

Allan Mandell

“This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.”
—Edward Weston

[L]ove of rocks and gardens is what lured me to Japan. During an extended visit I photographed gardens in Kyoto every day for a year. This was something I had wanted to do my entire adult life. Fortunately I was allowed to join a group under the guidance of Kyoto’s preeminent garden photographer. We sat on tatami mats at Honen-in and received critiques of our work delivered in samurai warrior fashion.

I learned so much shooting through the seasons. Kyoto was my aesthetic and spiritual training ground as a garden photographer. At the end of the year, my sensei suggested I turn pro. I followed his advice.

What happens when I experience a garden interests me, and as a photographer, how do I portray this in an image?

Over the years my love affair with Kyoto brings me back here, to the source of my inspiration and evolution as a garden photographer. Nowadays I tend to agree with the sentiments of Edward Weston: “I see no reason for recording the obvious,” and Minor White: “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” The older I get, the more this makes sense. Rational identification of an object or a scene only goes so far. There is something that goes far beyond, deeper into the human psyche, that a viewer can sense in a strong image …and in a Japanese garden.

In my current series of trios, I want to create an experience of ‘garden’ in which multiple views exist together, an invitation to loosen your grip on reality and enter another world. Isn’t that exactly what a garden is? Each image has three parts, and each of these parts is a composition unto itself. I shoot square format and then assemble the trios in my studio. It is a very slowed-down cinematic approach.

As a counterpoint, I find the singular black and white image is often just what is needed. Monochrome tones can be so lyrical, bringing out the sensually evocative qualities of a subject. Sometimes less can actually mean so much more.

Experiencing beauty means going past the intellect. Once when I was entering a tea-room, the host told me “This place no think. Feeling.” Now that’s a sensibility I can identify with, one that applies to seeing in a garden and to creating photographs.

The KyotoGTO series is the result of back-to-back time spent in Kyoto and Guanajuato, Mexico. Gardens and architecture are combined without the need to obey the laws of gravity or a conventional definition of space. These duos depict a criss-cross of cultures that are in many ways opposite although sometimes surprisingly similar in their expression. Color, form and line offer a continuum for connection.

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Allan Mandell

Author's Bio

Allan Mandell lives in Victoria BC, Canada. His has been a professional garden photographer for over 20 years. He leads seasonal tours to the gardens of Kyoto. •