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Tender photos reveal the quiet intimacy of an English country garden

By Suyin Haynes, CNN

(CNN) — The traditional depiction of an English garden is often one of structured flower beds, quaint pathways, and perfectly trimmed hedges. But British photographer Siân Davey wanted to make something different.

“I’m keen to avoid creating a saccharine and nostalgic picture,” she said of “The Garden,” her new portrait series. “It’s not that at all. It’s a very focussed, process-driven, heart-driven and considered piece of work.”

The Garden’s inception was in February 2021, “in this post-lockdown period when the world stood still,” Davey told CNN during an interview. She recalled sitting at her kitchen table at home in Devon, southwest England, when her son Luke proposed they transform their neglected back garden into a space filled with flowers in which Davey could photograph local people, family and friends.

The result is a series of intimate portraits that speak to nature’s unbridled, connecting power. Whether clothed or unclothed, partially obscured or fully shown, gazing towards the camera or looking away, the people photographed in the garden are immersed within a haze of wild colour springing from foxgloves, sweet peas, cornflowers and poppies.

“The space of the garden somehow enabled people to make that transition from their head into their heart, and people revealed extraordinary stories about themselves,” said Davey.

“The Garden” is currently shortlisted for the Prix Pictet — an international photography prize highlighting work on themes connected to sustainability. This year’s tenth edition is themed ‘Human’, with the shortlist including 12 photographers from 11 countries. The winner will be announced on September 28.

It’s a theme that resonates deeply with Davey, who has a background in psychotherapy. She recalled one week during the summer of 2021 when all the flowers bloomed, attracting the attention of passers-by who had seen the space developing over time. The garden became a site of conversation. Davey’s invitation was for people to not only enter and be photographed within it, but also for people to reconnect with both themselves and the environment. “It was a really particular alchemy of humanity and nature,” she explained.

An antidote to loneliness

A focus on human stories runs through Davey’s work. Her 2015 book “Looking for Alice” chronicled the early years of her daughter born with Down’s syndrome, and her second book “Martha”, published in 2018, follows another of her four children.

For Davey and her son, the project was as much about intention and process as it was about making the photographs. To this end, the pair planted according to a sustainable biodynamic calendar, viewing the Earth as a “living harmonious organism”, where the garden was created according to the moon cycles of the northern hemisphere, focusing on flowers that would be helpful to pollinators.

And while the garden’s plants and flowers were thoroughly researched, Davey recalls her son undertaking a kind of “anarchic gardening” to crowd the small space as much as possible. “We were thinking about how we create a garden that felt immersive so people would lose their sense of self. It was a wonderful and interesting inquiry into space.”

The idea of space also relates to the fact that the garden is part of Davey’s rented family home, situated on the historic estate of the 14th century Dartington Hall in Devon. “That’s quite key to the work in many ways, because it just kind of means that anyone can do this,” Davey says. “You don’t have to be a landowner or a property owner.”

Davey stopped shooting for the series in early September 2023, after three summers working in the garden. For her, the project speaks of a particular window of time, when many people felt isolated, lonely and disconnected as a result of the pandemic. Yet, as much as she noticed these growing feelings of fragmentation and loneliness, she said she also noticed a greater appreciation for the natural world among society.

Creating the garden then, has been a way to create a deeper relationship between the people photographed and the earth.

Has creating a garden — both as a physical space and as a photographic project — shifted Davey’s own relationship with nature? “Inevitably,” she said. “Nature has a vitality of its own, and it showed me that if I stayed present and curious and interested, (it) would be my teacher. Nature is a healer, but it can’t heal if we don’t listen.”

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