One early September afternoon I found myself on the porch of Bea Robinson’s house in Athens, Georgia. While my friend Sara Glickman and Bea chatted about their lives, I looked around and became entranced by Bea’s garden. Something came over me – or through me – as I stood in the garden, looking, feeling, sensing the energy or magic or spirit, call it what you will, that surrounded me. On that warm, soft, sunny day I took the first of what has turned into a series of photographs with which I continue to be deeply involved fifteen years later.
I still often leave my friend’s home and headinto the neighborhood where Bea Robinson lives, that’s largely, if not all, African-American, or out into the counties south and east, Oglethorpe, Taliaferro, Greene, Morgan, and Wilkes; I have also traveled and photographed throughout the deep southern states, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and Arkansas. I drive through the towns and countryside looking for gardens that feel similar to Bea’s. These gardens speak a certain language – a language, I’m convinced, that is about the earth, about beauty, and about spirit. Some of the vocabulary of this language is about belief and spiritual knowledge – the empty bottles, the pipes sticking upright out of the ground, dolls – and have specific meanings that relate to the spirits of ancestors or magical powers and that go back centuries and across an ocean; some of the vocabulary is functional, practical, born of necessity – the vegetable gardens, the chicken coops; and some is quite simply of beauty – the impatiens and petunias and pinks, the rose bushes, prickly pears, and canna lilies. The way the vocabulary is put together is based on tradition, custom, function, and each gardener’s sense of what looks pleasing – in a special and recognizable style. This style becomes the structure of the language; this structure is aesthetic; and this aesthetic, to my eye, is beauty.
It’s a language different from the one I grew up with in Eastern Canada or New England, where I live now. It is a language, though, that I’ve seen and felt before – mostly in the South, mostly in the yards of African-Americans. It’s a language whose sound is so lyrical that, even though I don’t know the nuances of all the words, I use it to make these photographs.
Scholars (including my friend Sara Glickman) have studied these gardens and traced many of their traits to Africa, pointing out similar uses of the land and finding that slaves brought with them not only plant seeds, but agricultural expertise, some of it still in evidence today. The gardens, however, are disappearing – or evolving – as we become less rural and more assimilated, and even, for many, less poor. There is a distinct influence among ethnic groups, so that features of traditional African American yards are now seen in white gardens and vice-versa. As people move into cities, they tend to assimilate more with the dominant culture, which in our society encourages the use of store-bought planters, “garden furniture,” and even a particular style of landscape design that places one clearly in the middle class. Therefore, these photographs (1987-2005) are a document of a tradition that is a way of using the land that is both historically significant and aesthetically resonant.