Manmade Nature
By Elizabeth Licata

In England, gardens reach their peak in May and June. Not so here in the more extreme locations of the U.S., where winters are long, springs are brief and soggy, and July is usually the most glorious horticultural month, with the autumnal splendors of September and October running a close second. Although he probably didn’t intend it, artist John Pfahl’s aptly-named book Extreme Horticulture is perfect for those of us who live in the land of meteorological excess.

Dr. Wadsworth Tree
John Pfahl, Dr. Wadsworth Tree
Chautaqua, New York.
If you thought you’d have to get on a plane to see some of the most outlandish, exquisite, and fascinating feats of gardening in North America, guess again. Many of the physical locations of these beautifully photographed and reproduced images are well within the reach of the Western New York traveler.

For example, one need only drive about half an hour or less to Niagara Falls Botanical Garden in Ontario to see the magnificent allée of European hornbeams reproduced on pages 30-31. A brief drive further gets you to Hamilton, where you’ll find the spectacular roses on page 35, and the meticulously clipped hedges of Euonymous, privet, spirea, and barberry on page 32. Just a few minutes more, and you can marvel at Cullen Gardens’ (in Whitby, Ontario) sixty-foot long topiary peacock, whose tail is made of 6,000 plants, including coleus, fountain grass, and amaranth.

Don’t want to drive at all? You can visit the sixteen-year-old trumpet vine on page 25 when you participate in this year’s Garden Walk (it’s in the Little Summer area).

Extreme Horticulture
Extreme Horticulture.
Although there are images from private and public gardens all over the U.S. in this book, including agave collections and cactus gardens in California and impatiens islands in Disney World, it is gratifying to see so much carefully-groomed beauty within reach of Buffalo.

John Pfahl, who is based in Buffalo but exhibits his photography all over the world (Extreme Horticulture is published by the London firm Frances Lincoln), has been working on Extreme Horticulture for some years. It is part of his on-going exploration of the theme of landscape, both as it occurs in nature and is altered by man. One of Pfahl’s most well-known series is called Altered Landscapes (1974-78)—the utterly compelling photos show natural landscapes where Pfahl has placed disconcerting elements like strings, duct tape, and chains. Pfahl’s intrusions end up looking like they were added to the photo after the fact (as might be done today with a digital program like Photoshop), and they force the viewer to think of the natural scenes within this contrived context. Other books and series by Pfahl include Arcadia Revisited, a 1985 project on the Niagara River and Falls; and Smoke (1988-89), a stunningly ethereal series of photographs of industrial smoke.

Mother Bird & Young
John Pfahl, Mother Bird and Young,
Cypress Gardens, Florida.

Like his other series, Extreme Horticulture captures what is most compelling about the photographed sites without lapsing into overawe or sentimentality. Every image—including a spectacular wall of orchids at Longwood Gardens—is calmly organized by Pfahl’s innate sense of formal symmetry. The buildings on each side of Jeff Koons’ monstrous flower-covered Puppy, the corresponding cones of hemlock at Maryland’s Topiary Gardens, the small, centered white sculpture in Charleston’s camellia/holly maze—these assured, retrained compositions let us enter the magnificence easily and gradually, without it being thrust in our face.

Pfahl always gives the impression that he is discovering the image at the same time the reader is. He is relentlessly curious about how and why the human experiences the landscape, and fascinated by our sometimes felicitous, sometimes tragic attempts to mold it to our needs and desires.

Azalea Maze
John Pfahl, Azalea Maze, J. Paul Getty Center,
Los Angeles, California.

In addition to Pfahl’s images and commentary on each, the book also contains an introductory essay by Rebecca Solnit, a California-based writer who has written a number of books about the American West, among other subjects. Solnit provides a necessarily condensed history of British and American landscape design. Her theme is our search for Eden and it will resonate with many an urban dweller who has attempted to create a mini-paradise to escape to after a long day. It also provides some philosophical context for Pfahl’s representations of some of the more outrageous gardens.

You expect to find pleasure in a classic coffee table book like this. And because it’s John Pfahl, you expect even more. As always, he delivers.

Extreme Horticulture (London: Frances Lincoln Limited, 2003) is internationally distributed. It can be found at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery museum shop and is of course available through the usual on-line sources.

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.


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