As blustery winds and biting cold plague the National Mall, the Botanic Garden offers a welcome respite to visitors — both green-thumbed and otherwise. The garden’s newest exhibit whisks its audience to Scotland’s most captivating gardens, thanks to 40 large-scale photographs by Allan Pollok-Morris.
To shoot the photographs in “Close: a Journey in Scotland,” Pollok-Morris spent five years traveling through Scotland to visit works by more than 30 renowned landscape designers and artists, including Andy Goldsworthy, Charles Jencks, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Arabella Lennox-Boyd and Penelope Hobhouse.
Always on the lookout for innovative exhibitions that tell a story, the Botanic Garden chose to feature Pollok-Morris to show a different side of gardening.
“These gardens are about landforms and land art,” said Christine Flanagan, the Botanic Garden’s public programs manager. “It’s a much larger statement about how humans interact with their landscape, with the skin of the earth.”
Holly Shimizu, the garden’s executive director, said, “People will be amazed at the kind of garden art that’s being done in Scotland.”
Within the collection, no two gardens — or photographs — are alike. A romantic scene of a Scottish castle adorned with wildflowers hangs next to a stark, spindly sculpture covered in snow. A wide-angle vista of gardens by the sea contrasts with a close-up of the annual nicotiana affinis. Across the gallery, the warm and inviting Dunbeath Castle glows at the end of a tall line of foreboding trees.
“It takes you out of the everyday human scale and into something quite unreal,” Flanagan said. “It makes you wonder.”
Many of the photographs in the exhibit feature Cawdor Castle, often rumored to be the setting of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The castle’s gardens are famous for their bright red benches, which contrast with the lush greens and vibrant purples of the landscapes around them in Pollok-Morris’ photos.
“Gardens are a lot more than visual,” Shimizu said. “They are so experiential, so stimulating to the mind, senses and thoughts.”
While each of the gardens in the collection requires contemplation, Jencks’ 30-acre Garden of Cosmic Speculation seems to have fallen out of a surrealist painting.
“I was just so entranced with it,” Flanagan said. “It just overwhelms you.”
In his photographs of the garden, Pollok-Morris highlights a terraced hill covered with vibrant grass, reflected in a teardrop pond at its base. In another picture, eerily reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland, a checkerboard of moss and metal twists over a hill.
“It’s such an amazing concept,” Shimizu said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In an e-mail, Pollok-Morris wrote, “My aim is to make open, objective, thought-provoking photographs on the subject of man’s relationship with the natural world.”
To highlight that relationship, Pollok-Morris often includes figures in his photographs. One image centers on a life-sized bronze man, nestled alone among a cathedral of tall trees. Others feature children or the owners or caretakers of the gardens.
Although Pollok-Morris always appreciated the beautiful landscapes of his native Scotland, he decided to photograph the country’s gardens when he saw in a newspaper poll that readers had voted Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, Scotland’s most important work of art.
“I was inspired that a country so noted for its natural beauty could give such respect to the creative works by people in the landscape,” Pollok-Morris said.
While the jury is still out on whether a garden can be considered art, few deny their cultural significance, according to Pollok-Morris.
“Gardens and landscapes can sometimes be broad-brushed as being romantic, nostalgic, or picturesque, which doesn’t fit with the prevailing wind in the art world,” he said. “But there are levels within this that are new, exciting and true to the natural world.”
“It really is art,” Flanagan said. “The palette, instead of being paint, is the natural materials found on earth.”
That respect for natural beauty also informs the collection’s title. In ancient Scottish dialect, the word “close” was sometimes used to describe a landscape so inspirational that the heavens seemed closer to earth in that place, Pollok-Morris said.
The title also pays tribute to the saying in the documentary profession that a photograph will be of no worth if the photographer isn’t close enough to the subject, Pollok-Morris added.
“It can be a bit too ambiguous,” he said. “Someone called up the curator of one of the venues to say they were sorry to hear the gallery had to ‘close’ its doors.”
Fortunately for visitors to the Botanic Garden, “Close: a Journey in Scotland” will stay open through June 5. The Botanic Garden is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.