Reilluminate: The Garden at Night

Gardens are places of light. They’re of the daytime, morning, afternoon. We rarely view them, garden them, sit in them, at night. Because plants, those photosynthetic wonders, are slaves to the sun. As, mostly, are we. It goes without saying, then, that most photography of plants and gardens is captured during the day. Except, that is, if you’re photographer Allison Watkins, and you’re a night-time garden stalker (in the best kind of way).

Allison is a photographer based in the Napa Valley of California. She studied fine arts at university and has long been obsessed by photography. “I can’t imagine my life without using the camera as a tool to observe, document, and reflect on the world around me.” I caught up with her recently to find out more about her photographic series, Reilluminate, capturing the wonder and mystery of plants in the dark.

Hi Allison. Can you please tell me a little about your life with plants and art? I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area and have been working with photography for over twenty years, starting in the darkroom at my high school. I studied fine art photography and design at university, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Art from San Jose State University and a MFA from San Francisco University. Photography has long been a passion – it’s held my interest continuously since then.

Growing up in California, I have always had a connection and appreciation for the the diversity of the landscape, Californian agriculture, and home gardening. My grandfather was tied to agriculture through the refrigeration plant he ran in San Jose in the 1930s – he kept produce cold for the fruit orchards that dominated the valley before the rise and development of Silicon Valley. I think about the hard work that has been done throughout history to not only bring us beauty through plants and flowers, but most importantly, to feed us.

Plants have always carried a sense of mystery for me and I love embracing and learning about their medicinal properties – this is knowledge our ancestors once carried that we’re now realising the need to relearn. Plants are also strongly linked to nostalgia and my memories of childhood – I remember digging a giant hole and planting a redwood tree with my parents in our front yard, picking avocados and roses with my grandmother, and eating lemons straight from the tree with my sister. My family has always cared about cultivating the land and beautifying their home and the space around them with plants; I think I carry this with me as well.

Can you please tell me a little about your Reilluminate series? Why did you start shooting it back in 2014? What keeps you traipsing out in the night looking for flowers? After leaving San Francisco ten years ago, I moved to the Napa Valley to teach photography classes at the local community college. One of the first things that stood out to me in my new rural home was the strong presence of the night sky; the stars were so much more apparent than they were in the city where light pollution dominated. I spent nights staring at the sky when I first moved to Napa, overwhelmed by what I had been missing. Not only did the stars stand out, but the plants seemed to stand out more too, they were illuminated by the strong moonlight that had been diffused by the fog and light pollution of the city. 

The apartment I was renting in 2013-2014 had a large, wild garden in the back, so I started Reilluminate there. Pretty soon all I wanted to do was walk around neighbourhoods at night with my medium format film camera and photograph the plants that stood out to me. I view the world so differently now since working directly with plants – each plant has a story, a history, and a place where they do or don’t belong. 

Has working on Reilluminate changed the way you look at gardens? I think more about the layout of gardens now – how they can be layered and wild, or heavily manicured, and how that might fit into the rectangular shape of a photograph. Perspective is so important when photographing anything, but it’s especially important since plants look different from various angles. I have learned so much more about plants, and growing my own garden has given me some creative control and also made me feel like I’m doing something positive for the earth – our garden gets tons of bees and hummingbirds because of what we’ve planted. It makes me feel like I can do my own part, as small as it may be.  

Where are most of the images shot? In your own home garden or in others?
The first images were shot around my previous apartment and the suburban areas of the Napa Valley. A couple of years ago I started planting flowers (from seed and bulb) in my own garden to photograph. We have a large backyard and it’s now transforming into a very small flower farm. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we have an abundance of flowers this summer. We’ve also planted loads of tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and a variety of lettuces. The beauty of living in Northern California is that I can plant almost anything here and it will grow!

What have you learnt from undertaking the series? Since I grow flowers from seed I have learned patience and the importance of observing all stages of the plant while I grow them, not only when they are at their prime, or in bloom. I have also learned that I could never be without a garden now! It brings joy, hope, life, and beauty to our home. I only hope I can preserve that through a photograph. I hope to add beauty, mystery, and an appreciation for living things to someone’s home through a print. 

You’re a keen gardener as well as an artist and winemaker! How does the garden inform/influence your other creative practices? My husband and I started our wine project Mountain Tides in 2016, the year we were married. We both share a love of food, wine, and the earth. We are trying our best to honour it and protect it, and so we only work with vineyards that are farmed organically and responsibly. Winemaking really opened me up to a different way of viewing California and it’s abundant and complex agricultural landscape – I’ve learned so much about the history of the land and winemaking has brought me to parts of California and communities that I didn’t know existed. Since I do all of the label photography and design, it has challenged me to think about what’s representative of the California landscape, and there is always the challenge of making imagery that’s relevant and appeals to consumers. It’s very different because in my fine art work, I just don’t worry too much about appealing to anyone; I basically do what I want to do. That creative freedom is something I cherish and now bring to my own garden when I’m both planting and photographing it. 

My garden has been getting a lot more attention than usual since coronavirus descended on our world. What about you? What has been happening in your garden lately? Is there a relationship between your garden and your mental health?! Absolutely! I knew I was going to plant an even larger garden this year, but it has become even more possible since we’ve had the time in quarantine. It was very scary to see grocery store shelves emptied the first week of the Covid-19 outbreak, and I felt we needed to be even more self- sustaining. We amended a large area in our backyard, planted fava beans to help the soil, and are hoping for the best this season. It’s made me think about our ancestors (some of mine were pioneers) and the hard work they endured to work and cultivate the land for food. During this crisis, I have become more conscious of how much I consume and how much I discard.

And yes, as idealistic as it may sound, something as simple as weeding the garden can give me peace and make me feel like I’m working toward a brighter future.  I’ve been planting many flower varieties as well as vegetables, and my fingers are crossed for a great summer vegetable and grape harvest (and some nice photographs too).