Just as not every foodie enjoys cooking, not all plant geeks are gardeners. Ellen Hoverkamp is a photographer who collaborated with author Ken Druse on Natural Companions: The Garden Lover’s Guide to Plant Combinations and, most recently, The Scentual Garden: Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance. She takes no credit for growing the plants she photographs, however. When asked about her own garden, she responded by laughing. Regardless, it’s clear she loves her subject.
Ellen doesn’t shoot outdoors with traditional handheld photographic equipment. Instead, she asks gardener friends and horticulturists at public gardens for cut stems of particular plants, or she buys bouquets from the Connecticut Flower Collective. She then uses a flatbed scanner—lid off—in a darkened room to create her images. Time is of the essence with subjects that are destined to wilt. Either she races home with full vases packed into coolers or, in the case of public gardens, she is sometimes given space on-site to work. “Looking at the gesture and behavior of the plant [with the] blossom as [the] focal point,” she says, “I let the murmurings of my art training and mentor voices drift into awareness as I carefully arrange each element of the composition face down on the glass.”
She makes many passes with the scanner to evaluate and adjust the composition. This can take one to two hours of painstaking attention to details, followed by another two to three hours retouching the final image. But Ellen, like any artist (or gardener) engaged with their work, is a tireless perfectionist.
The resulting photographs have the immediacy of a plein air painting coupled with what Ellen describes as “a hyper detail and three-dimensionality that powerfully engages the viewer.” She continues: “In a world of fleeting attention and daily stressors, that level of impact is necessary to make someone stop and remember that despite all, nature’s beauty also grows and awaits our attention and care.” I still can’t believe she doesn’t have a garden of her own. But she insists that “scanning what other people grow is my refuge in the way the garden is a refuge to its creator.”
Ellen is eager to share her methods and has advice for gardeners: “Bring snippets of your own garden to a small photo scanner attached to your computer . . . to document your growing season . . . and dream up new ideas.” If you don’t have a scanner, Ellen suggests, “lay stems flat on a solid-colored surface, snap a photo, then run it though a sketching app . . . for a quick botanical illustration.”
Find more inspiration within Ken Druse’s coffee table– and potting bench–worthy garden references. Ellen describes the artwork she created for Natural Companions and The Scentual Garden as “a kind of pictorial garden slice” and a source of information, “like a botanical specimen.” If only the photographs illustrating The Scentual Garden captured their perfume as well as their physical beauty! But we fellow plant geeks with gardens of our own won’t have to rely on imagination.
—Kristin Green is the author of Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big With 150 Plants That Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter. She gardens in Bristol, Rhode Island.