Monthly Archives: November 2011

Is Edward James’ garden, Las Pozas, surreal?

Edward James (1907-1984) was a wealthy Englishman who never quite fitted in to the high society life that he could have been a part of. Instead his artistic temperament  set him on a life-long search that led him to the town of Xilitla, about 200km north of Mexico City, where he bought land to create an orchid garden called Las Pozas.  Unusually heavy snow and low temperatures in the winter of 1962 wiped out many of the orchids but James didn’t replant. Instead he conceived a garden of exotically-shaped structures, sculptures and buildings made in reinforced concrete. For almost 2 decades construction took place, though many of the structures remain unfinished, and it is these structures for which Las Pozas is rightly world famous in gardening, architectural and artistic circles. This picture gives you an idea:

Las Pozas colour image

Colour photograph of unfinished structure, Las Pozas (note the person on the curved stairs to give an idea of scale). copyright Malcolm Raggett

Edward James associated with the surrealist movement for much of his life, acting as patron and collector. He was not a hands-off collector though: artists such as Dali and Magritte credited James with at least some of the inspiration for their pictures.  James had an innate tendency to turn the logical into the illogical, the rational to the irrational and the real into the surreal. But for many years he dismissed the idea that Las Pozas was a surreal garden, only later did he concede that there were surreal elements to it. The passage of time and the lack of money for maintenance since James’ death has meant that the structures have weathered and the jungle invaded to produce a (to me) marvellous combination of organically-inspired sculpture with natural foliage. This juxtaposition of reinforced concrete with sub-tropical jungle contains a distinct surreal concept. There are some visitors who cannot warm to this, and who even deny it
the label of “garden”, but for me it is without doubt a fantastical, exuberant surreal garden.

But how to photograph it? Taking colour photographs provides a great record but is somehow too “real”. Photographing in black & white provides a useful degree of abstraction to the images without being sufficiently surreal, so I tried black & white infrared film. I hoped that the pale foliage against the dark concrete would give me that other-worldliness I was after. Here are some examples. Do they work for you?

black & white image

Image taken on black & white film without infrared filtration. The tonality of the foliage and the concrete are very similar. copyright Malcolm Raggett

black & white infrared image

Here's a similar image but taken on IR film with infrared filtration. The pale foliage against the dark concrete differentiate the two more clearly and give a surreal element to the image. copyright Malcolm Raggett

Here are some more examples, all using EFKE Aura 35mm film and a 720um IR filter:

black & white infrared photo

copyright Malcolm Raggett

black & white infrared photo

copyright Malcolm Raggett