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

11 responses to “Is Edward James’ garden, Las Pozas, surreal?

  1. Can one walk in those gardens?
    To be honest, no, these examples don’t work for me. The thing is, you’ve seen this and you know what they look like and you probably see this when you look at this photographs. I do like them in a way, but I wish I could see more. The objects became sometimes a cacophony of lights and shades and I try to squeeze my eyes and focus to see what actually is there in the photo but my eyes get tired to quickly to go on looking.

    • Alexandra – yes, Las Pozas is open to the public.

      Wow, you have a strong reaction. In fact a “cacophony of lights and shades” is a good description of walking in many sub-tropical jungle settings. Perhaps my photos are too impressionistic to be surreal?!

      • Oh yes, they are impressionistic! I wonder if black and white impressionism existed before.
        I got very interested in the idea of the gardens. Do you often walk there?
        I’m not an artist, well I mean I wasn’t officially educated in art, but surreal to me sounds like something that has unbelievable angles and and not possible perspectives. Oh, I’m sure these gardens are a very interesting place for photography. Do you have any wide-angles photos of those places?

  2. Hi Malcom
    I have been thinking about buying a EOS 1V body to use the Aura film.

    What sort of exposures have you been getting with Opaque and Red Filters in good light? I guess it’s rated at 20 ISO with a Red Filter?

    As the film doesn’t have an anti-halation layer have you managed to get a glow effect where bright meets dark on the negative?


    • Andy – I bought a cheap film body on eBay (£6 for a Minolta Dynax 5. A bargain, and meant that I could use the same lenses as my digital equipment). Although this and many other film cameras use an IR sensor to wind on the film, it doesn’t affect any IR film I’ve used.

      I rate Aura at ISO50. This gives good exposures without a filter. If you use a red filter you can still rate at ISO50 and take a reading through the filter. I don’t find the infrared effect very strong with a red filter so I use an IR filter that only transmits IR light. I use a 720um filter. 750um also works but anything stronger will block all the IR light that the film is sensitive to (820um is black as far as the film is concerned). With an IR filter attached you cannot see to compose through the SLR viewfinder so you need to use a tripod: compose and focus without filter (I normally take a regular b&w frame at this stage) then attach the filter, move the focus to the IR mark if you lens has one (or jog the focus ring towards infinity and stop down to f8 if no IR mark). Since the IR filter has cut out all the visible light I then compensate by bracketing my exposures at +3, +4 and +5 stops. In bright sunlight I’m using shutter speeds around 1/8th second – another reason for a tripod!

      Aura, without the anti-halation layer, spreads the light a lot. It’s particularly noticeable where sky meets building for example, but the effect is still present and more subtle wherever there’s a contrasting edge. It produces an ethereal effect that I really like, but then I also like grungy Hipstamatic images! If you want crisp clean edges you are better off with Rollei IR, which I only occasionally use (and rate at ISO200).

      I develop for moderate contrast only. I’d rather catch all the tones in the negative then scan and manipulate for grain and contrast in the computer. 8 minutes in Kodak HC110 at 1+39 dilution, 20C and intermittent agitation is a good starting point. I only use HC110 because I have it in stock – other devs should work fine too.

      I hope this helps. Let me know if you post any results on the Web!

  3. Hi Malcom
    Thanks for the technical bump – the speed and exposure were what I expected you to say for a red filter.

    If you look at my last post you will see my plans have changed a bit, however I do plan to do some darkroom Lith Prints.


  4. Hello, its so nice to see this blog of Las Pozas. I was working in Las Pozas during 2009 as artist in residence there and returned to run a festival there in 2010. This place has very much informed my art work and I think of Las Pozas often. Many thanks. Emma

    • I was only there for a day but it made a great impression. I envy you spending time in residence! I really liked the place but others don’t “get it” – they expect a more conventional garden I suppose. What work did you do and how did the festival work out?

  5. Las Pozas is now an app for the iPhone & iPad:

    • Bob,
      Thanks for the heads-up on this. There seems to be two versions: a free one which contains adverts, so presumably the pay-for version is ad-free.

      I’ve installed the app and taken a mini-tour. It’s a great reminder/introduction to the garden. I was particularly pleased to see some archival footage/stills included. I couldn’t find the plan of the garden mentioned on the info page but not knowing quite where you are is part of the fun!


  6. Marc:
    IPad version has map and other treats. iPhone version is fun, but more streamlined.

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