Monday, February 27, 2006

Photography, Martha Stewart, and Soft-Core Garden Porn

Author Amy Stewart posted this recently: Dirt: Garden Magazines, with a reference to Martha Stewart's new issue of Living, the garden edition. This elicited pleas from readers for garden magazines for real live gardeners.

Let's face it: garden magazines these days are less about gardening than they are about printing drool-worthy pictures of framed garden views that you wish were framed by your own windows. Pick up any of the offerings at the supermarket, or the better magazines at the bookstore, and you'll find page after page of gorgeous photographs of full, luscious greenery, spilling over with a voluptuous display of floral excess, with the blossoms fairly throbbing in their eagerness, pleading, "Oh, yes! Oh, yes! Take me, pick me, please!" Yes, it's porn for the gardener's soul. Like Playboy babes, these gardens are the epitome of perfection -- and like Playboy babes, they're not to be found in real life anywhere on the planet.

Or so a tell-all article I read by a garden photographer revealed. Those full-blown bowers of blossoms? Filled in with potted plants and cut flowers and greenery. The perfect garden paths, framed by mounds of green? Groomed to within an inch of its life by a crew just prior to the picture, and flooded with the photographer's lights. That cool blue misty atmosphere and those pure colors? Photoshop.

Martha's magazine follows the same lusty trend, starting with the photo on the cover of a perfectly groomed path of warm yellow pebbles, edged with clipped shrubs and mounds of lavender, leading the eye into the distance with a promise (a real or false promise?) of cool forest recesses beyond. Trees shrouded in mysterious mists in the far background add to the fantasy atmosphere. Ah, it could all be mine if only... if only...

...if only I could afford those $150 Indonesian pots adorning the path (I know, I priced some at the garden center last Friday), had enough flat land to lay out a formal arrangement like this, had a full-time assistant to do the clipping and raking, and had neighbors obliging enough to keep the trees on their back lot shrouded perpetually in cool blue mist.

I turn to the corresponding article inside and admire the pictures -- centerfolds, practically -- of the same nursery. Ah hah! It's all a professional endeavor! Gorgeous green perfection, lovely to behold, but beyond the reach of us ordinary gardening mortals unless we should somehow strike it rich. I should have known.

Beyond the article on the Digging Dog nursery are pages of food art featuring hot red peppers laid out on candy-colored dishes, with colorful linens and a multitude of serving accessories. Like the gardens, the food is lovely to look at, but nothing like what graces our own plates of an evening at home, unless one has all day to create it, plus a vast supply of crockery and linen that can be carefully color-coordinated with the food. And still you know that Junior will turn up his nose at it and demand corn-dogs, while the spouse will give you a patronizing smile and tell you, "It's real... interesting, honey."

Oh, but wait... there's an article on making fountains in ceramic pots. Ooh, I could do that, I think. A fountain on the front porch perhaps, made with some nice ceramic pots... Big Lots had some on sale... I could... I could... Ooh, and an article on growing dahlias, big poofy dahlias, just plant them, stake them, fertilize, prune, dig the tubers and carefully store them in vermiculite... I could do that... I could...

I could also put something cool on my forehead, have a lie-down on the couch, and come to my senses, since I know perfectly well that I haven't any outdoor electrical outlets to run a fountain. Nor do I have many sunny bits in my garden where I could grow dahlias, not that haven't been claimed by vegetables, anyway. And who wants to muck around with digging up tubers in the wet Pacific Northwest fall? If it requires intensive care, it's not going to survive in my garden. Ah, it's the Martha effect, and I was nearly overcome.

Actually, my favorite bit of the magazine isn't even an article. It's an ad on page 181 for Amtrack, featuring a very chubby fairy fixing a hot drink for a passenger. I like that fairy. I want her to be my muse. Strangely, the plump fairy is probably the most real, down-to-earth thing in the entire magazine.

So how about it? How about a garden magazine for real people? One that features not perfectly groomed nurseries, or gardens of the wealthy that get photographed after a professional garden crew has worked them over. I'd like to see real-life miracles, people who have little time and money to spend on their 1/8 acre suburban lot, but still create something remarkable. Would a magazine like that sell? It might. I'd buy it. But you know that the gorgeous garden porn will sell even better. Why? For the pictures, of course. I know all those guys say they buy Playboy for the articles, but honestly, would they still buy it for the articles if all the pictures were removed?

I think not.


Kathy said...

I would be interested in reading that "tell-all" article. Do you remember where you read it? I don't think every magazine is that bad. My garden was photographed by Fine Gardening staff several years ago. While the photographer took care to make sure the natural light was soft and no wind was blowing, she certainly didn't bring in potted plants and greenery. She did trim a bit of brown leaf or flower past its prime (always asking permission first), and she did set up her tripod in the middle of one bed to get the best shot of another bed, but nothing that substantially altered what she was photographing.

Not that I disagree with your basic premise, that it's the good looking images that sell, and publishers and advertisers know it. Anyone who wants a magazine of real, unretouched gardens might better subscribe to Birds & Blooms, published by Reiman Publications.

Amy Stewart said...

yeah, I'd love to read that "tell-all" article, too, if you can find it. Fascinating.

Reading Dirt said...

I'm looking for it, but dagnabit, I think it went out in one of many "what are all these magazines doing stacked up in this house" purges. It's been a few years since I saw it. I'll keep looking... it was a howler of a story.