You know what they say about a woman who shows up in a garden bearing fruit? But there are no serpents or burning bushes around, and a shoebox full of organic avocadoes straight out of Becky Cohen's garden seems a harmless—actually, a very sweet—gesture.
We've decided to meet at Quail Botanical Gardens, right up the street from her Encinitas home, where I imagine the world-renowned photographer has a lush and sprawling garden herself. I don't take into account that she's often gone for months at a time—whether it's in L.A. to photograph the Robert Irwin-designed garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum or jet-setting to a place just south of Paris to document Louis XIV's gardens—and Cohen makes it very clear just how green her thumb really is.
“What I've learned,” she says, “is how to pick plants that can survive neglect.”
While her own garden might be ignored and water-deprived, Cohen has made up for it in a four-decade-long career as a garden photographer, almost all of it while based in San Diego. That might sound uninteresting to some photo aficionados, but one look at Cohen's stunning and otherworldly body of work—where within a single image, the mysteries of the natural world suddenly feel answered and paradise and reality intersect without being contradictory—and suddenly you get it.
“I want my work to be universally legible,” she says. “I don't want to shortchange the subject, the viewer, myself or the situation. Perhaps you can ask what is true? That's what I'm trying to answer. My work has a transparency to it.”
In fact, throughout our two-hour walk, while I'm busy looking at this pretty flower or that ominous tree, it becomes increasingly clear why Cohen is so good at what she does. While most of us marvel at things that are immediately noticeable to the point of being obvious, Cohen sees the things beyond.
“Wow, look at that,” she says, pointing out the tiniest of blooms on a cactus so small even one of the many lizards scurrying around might accidentally bump into it. The bloom indeed contrasts beautifully with the prickly cactus surrounding it, but what's more striking to me is Cohen's observational skills. Perhaps that's why she's so admired and why her work has been collected by everyone from the The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris to the Museum of Contemporary Art here in San Diego.
“The work has to be good—that's one thing, but you have to be able to market yourself,” she says. “You have to defend your work further—that it is important and of value. You have to defend your entire body of work that has been collected by people and museums.”
In her telling of photographing the Getty Garden for four years starting in the late '90s, she talks about this passion for “the work”—something that impressed designer Robert Irwin so much that, after meeting Cohen, he dismissed the other five photographers (all men) who were auditioning for the job of photographing the garden. Once in the garden, she might have appeared insane to someone watching her observe. For hours she would watch shadows move over one plant, sometimes never moving or snapping a photograph. It was so unnerving to passersby and volunteers that they would often stop to ask if she needed help identifying the plant. But it paid off in more ways than one.
“What I was able to do in the Getty Gardens was internalize the movement of the shadows and the sun. I was so intent on getting just the right picture so that the shadows would describe the plant with such intensity.”
As a result, she not only came away with a cool new parlor trick—she says she could identify the time, day or night, that a photo was taken, “give or take a minute or two”—but her photographs were also published in Robert Irwin Getty Gardens in 2002, which both The Times of London and The Los Angeles Times Book Review called “exquisite.”
Her other two projects, those that seem to be the most time-consuming, are her pictures of the 18 French gardens designed by baroque landscape architect André Le Nôtre and her more personal nude photographs, or what she calls “the unclothed human figure.” The former, along with her Getty Gardens work, will be the focus of an exhibition at Noel-Baza Fine Art (2165 India St. in Little Italy) starting May 5.
The Le Nôtre work originally began in 1993, and she would go back once or twice a year for months at a time until 2005. Many of the shots have been featured in various architecture and photography magazines, and one picture (“Square-Cut Allée in Winter at Parc du Sceaux”) was featured in Life magazine in 2000 and won her an Alfred Eisenstaedt Award. She says that the project still isn't done and plans to return to complete it, eventually to be published under the title, Le Nôtre and Time.
And while her nudes are not what she's most known for, she has an extensive number of published works devoted to the medium, and she speaks about it with reverence.
“When I'm taking a portrait, they all begin with conversation,” she explains. “Maybe I want that intimacy. The debris of intimacy. A post card from that time. We make an exchange, and then it's time. I like to wiggle into that person as far as I can.”
“I don't like the image of a photographer as stalker or capturer,” she adds later, a sharp contrast to her method of shooting gardens. “I want the person or the subject's own voice. And I'm listening with all that I can.”
As we make our final stop at Quail's gift shop, I look for a plant to give to a friend whose birthday I'd forgotten. But Cohen is ready to leave.
“Sometimes you can get garden strain,” she says, as if warning me of a condition she's experienced. And with that, like Eve with the snake, she disappears into the foliage.