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Cottage garden at Dolton in Devon, once owned by photographer James Ravilious (1993)

I have spent the past 18 months disposing of most of my life’s work. Each week a few thousand more photographs are going into the skip. I save only a small proportion of the 300,000 I have accumulated.

As a garden photographer, I have been travelling the world for 30 years, seeking out the most inspiring gardens. This has involved unusual working days, starting before dawn to catch the magic of early morning light, then travelling to the next location during the day, and finishing up with a session in a new garden at dusk. In midsummer this would make a 16-hour working day. Some winters I would travel in the southern hemisphere to repeat the process.

Somehow I have been driven to pin down ephemeral moments of an ephemeral subject – gardens and plants. It feels like a way to keep a living thing alive and to share it with other people. As a child, I had the same feeling for butterflies, although then I was mistaken in trying to catch them, kill them and pin them down to preserve them.

My photographic career coincided with a golden age of garden making. Think of the most influential gardens of the time – among them Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House, which I was lucky to photograph almost every week for several years; Penelope Hobhouse’s Tintinhull; Miriam Rothschild’s wild flower experiments at Ashton; Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter; Powis Castle under Jimmy Hancock; Sissinghurst in the days of the incomparable gardeners Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger; Nancy Lancaster’s Haseley Court; Nori and Sandra Pope’s astounding garden at Hadspen, now vanished altogether; and 20 years of expansion of the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove. That’s not to mention countless small gardens, from cottages to council estates and many abroad.

Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House (1992)

The earlier pictures and the gardens themselves look dated now of course. And that’s the point. There may be relatively little demand for the pictures now. Yet, I like to think that a future generation could find them interesting, important even.

By a fluke of timing, this was a golden age of colour printing as well as garden making. Magazines and books gloried in the pictures of the gardens they described and although my slides were used in about 50 books and heaven knows how many magazines, only a tiny proportion – maybe about 10,000 – of the 300,000 slides in my picture library has been published. All the same, I have set myself the task of reducing the contents of 20 filing cabinets to five, a process that involves grief and loss mingled with a fine sense of catharsis.

Colour transparencies were a last fling in the history of chemical photography that began in 1827. That year Nicéphore Niépce invented a way to fix an image from the camera obscura. You could say that a transparency is the purest form of photograph, derived directly from the camera’s action on film, without an intermediary negative. It was inevitable they would become doomed as soon as the world became digital. Chemical photography limps on still, but it is preserved only by a few high-end art photographers and those, mainly amateurs, nostalgic for old processes.

To look at a transparency you shine light through it. The colour is as pure as a stained-glass window. A lightbox and a lens is the best way to view one. You lose sharpness and subtlety of colour when a slide is printed, and more so when it is scanned. Most photographers have scanned their best pictures. I have scanned about 20,000 of mine before stopping. Quite simply I have found that the return does not justify the cost. Scans cost about £6 each. And publishers are looking for novelty, so they have diminishing interest in older work. Some photographers have not scanned early work at all, but have moved over exclusively to digital photography.

A comfortable scarecrow at Conholt Park, Lancashire (1996)

It is not that the world is short of images on the internet, many of them derived from scanned transparencies. The Getty Images agency alone contains a mind-boggling 60m images, and Alamy has 45m. It is easy now to source online, pictures of every subject under the sun, including, of course, gardens and plants.

Nevertheless, there is every reason to conserve pictures in the medium in which they were created. Transparencies have an artistic value over and above the images they contain. They are even more worthwhile as coherent collections on a single theme. So what is to be done with the mountains of redundant transparencies that loiter in studios across the land? It is a dilemma not only for garden photographers, but for professionals in every field, whether fashion, travel, news, or food. And the same applies to amateurs. Family histories are contained in boxes of fragile slides in dusty attics. I am certain we are doing posterity a favour if each of us cut down on quantity and edited our archives down to a core. It would be a tragedy if a whole generation of original colour photographs – between, say, the 1950s and 2000 – were lost because of the difficulties involved in editing and preserving them.

Formal structure and exquisite planting during Penelope Hobhouse’s time at Tintinhull in Somerset (1993)

You only need to watch colour movies of the 1950s to realise that transparency film may fade over time. Colour slide film was much the same, chemically, as movie film, and slides are subject to some decline over many years. There are simple conservation methods that can be used to extend their life. Provided that they are stored in consistently cold, dry and dark conditions, colour slides should survive unchanged for 60 years and more. A museum would only require a dedicated space with temperature and light control, at minimum cost. However, to conserve them for ever a programme of duplication would be necessary every half-century or so.

Black-and-white photographs – both prints and negatives – are easier to conserve. They are more durable and more compact. There is a long tradition in libraries and museums, such as the V&A, for conserving them. Not so with transparencies. It is assumed that the image on a transparency can be saved by scanning and then preserved digitally. This is only partly true. It is a valid enterprise to save slides themselves for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Libraries are furnished with computer screens; it would be simple for them to provide lightboxes too, on which files of transparencies can be viewed.

Fuchsia ‘Thalia’ in terracotta pots on a stone balustrade at Powis Castle (1990)

An obvious permanent home for garden pictures is the Garden Museum. Housed in a deconsecrated church in Lambeth, the museum has scarcely any space for archives at all. However, its inspired director, Christopher Woodward, has launched an appeal to build an archive. Lottery funds have been secured to make a new building in the museum grounds. This will soon fill with garden plans, correspondence and photographs already collected – and some of my own work will be among these artefacts (see sidebar).

Hart’s tongue ferns in Pam Lewis’ wild garden at Sticky Wicket, Devon (1998)

A more general repository of photographs is the National Media Museum in Bradford, which houses 3m black-and-white pictures from the Daily Herald archive from 1911 to the mid-1960s, as well as 250,000 images and artefacts from the Royal Photographic Society. There is a selection board that considers new applications to donate photographic collections but the museum does not have the space for many of the huge transparency libraries seeking a home.

What we need is a breathing space to enable collections to be put in order before they are lost altogether. A space the size of an aircraft hangar would be ideal. Photographers and executors would be able to deposit collections, each limited to a space, say 6ft by 4ft. Dispassionate editors could be employed to filter out pictures worth preserving for their artistic, historical or commercial value. For the rest, a conveyor belt would rumble the photographs to a crematorium at the back.


A growing legacy

The Garden Museum is building Britain’s first archive dedicated to the legacy of the makers of the nation’s great gardens, and to the writers, photographers and artists who have captured their beauty, writes museum’s director Christopher Woodward. Andrew Lawson will be one of the first depositors to the archive, together with garden designers John Brookes and Penelope Hobhouse, writer Hugh Johnson, photographer Jerry Harpur, Joy Larkcom and Alan Titchmarsh.

Gardens are ephemeral by nature, but designs, letters, photographs and film can be preserved as a lasting record. For more details, see gardenmuseum.org.uk/page/the-archive

Andrew Lawson’s garden at Gothic House in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, will be open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday, May 11, from 2pm to 6pm

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