As a nature photographer specializing in flower and botanical photography, the winter can be a challenging time to find subjects. As the flowers die and winter extends its icy hold on us, I normally seek the warmth of the indoors to photograph in conservatories and greenhouses in the Chicago area where I live. These lush indoor settings are filled with interesting subjects – ferns, desert plants, tropical flowers and seasonal flower shows. This is not a normal year, however, and all those indoor spaces are closed due to the pandemic. Many of us have had to dig a little deeper and use our creativity to keep photographing during this challenging year, and particularly during the cold months of winter. I knew that if I was going to continue to photograph during the winter, I had to rearrange my thinking, learn to embrace winter and begin to see my subjects a little differently. I was totally unprepared for the transformation to come – that I would grow to see this season in a completely new way.
Until now, I have been someone who disliked winter. I don’t like to be cold and I had little desire to be outdoors photographing in the frigid winter of the Chicago area. Let’s face it, to me there was nothing fun about facing the sub-zero temperatures and the stinging wind of winter in the Midwest. I viewed winter as the unfortunate but necessary bridge from the last flowers of October to the emergence of spring in April. I always waited it out and sought my indoor spaces to continue photographing. This year I was determined to change that attitude.
After a little research on how to layer more effectively to stay warm during my outings, I decided to dedicate myself to daily walks with my camera at Chicago Botanic Garden, a place only a few miles from my home where I do most of my flower and botanical photography during the growing season. I also found a woodland area a short walk from my home that was full of interesting subjects. I wasn’t convinced I would persevere, but I was willing to give it a good hardy try. I learned quickly that limiting my gear to one or two lenses made my walks more enjoyable and pushed me to use what I had more creatively. It also eliminated a lot of lens changing in frigid temperatures.
Most of my work is photographed with Lensbaby lenses and I find that the artistic effects and blur of these manual focus lenses helps me to see and capture my subjects in the way they feel to me. A variety of Lensbaby lenses comprise my work during this winter project – the Velvet 56mm, Velvet 85mm, Sol 45mm and the Spark 2.0. These lenses are perfect for photographing using selective focus, employing a shallow depth of field to lead the eye to interesting details and letting the surrounding area go to a beautiful blur.
Rather than looking for the vibrant colors and freshly opened flowers of a spring, summer or fall garden, I was on a mission to discover the more subdued hues of winter, the grace and unique beauty of dying flowers, curling leaves, seed pods, and other interesting remains of the garden. Almost immediately, I was stunned at the beauty I was finding and the way it deeply resonated with me. I began to change my way of thinking about winter and embraced the unique beauty of the garden and woodlands in winter.
Many of the garden areas at Chicago Botanic Garden are left intact during the winter – woodland gardens, the prairie areas, native plant gardens and others – so my subjects have been rich and varied. This focus on capturing the beauty of what remains in the garden in winter unexpectedly became exhilarating, and I couldn’t wait to get out the door each day for these peaceful, reflective winter walks. I have stayed warm and comfortable. I finally learned to invite the winter in and embrace it.
During this time I have been increasingly reflective about the concept of wintering, how we can use this time of winter to rest and also to gain new insights and wisdom. I became captivated by a book I stumbled upon – Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Just as plants and animals winter and rest, we as humans have a need to slow down, to reflect and to “hibernate.” After the stresses and challenges of this very different and difficult year, I found myself in mid-December feeling exhausted and depleted and needing to rest and refuel. Normally I would plow through that feeling and keep moving, but this year I listened and took my cue from the plants I was increasingly fascinated in capturing. It was time to rest, to reflect, to slow down and give myself the chance to be new again. I allowed myself to sleep more, to dig into books again, to cook hearty meals, to nest, to write, and to enjoy my personal photography. I put aside my “to-do” list for the time and increasingly learned how to say “no, not now.”
No matter the season, I am drawn to capturing the details of nature, the interesting details that are often missed by those walking quickly through a garden or in nature. I look for the unique personality and characteristics reflected in the flowers and subjects I photograph, and I often see stories and emotions in the images I capture, a result of my background as an art therapist. Photographing is my therapy, it is my way of further understanding myself and the feelings that emerge through my subjects.
Employing a slow and mindful approach in the garden, I spend time exploring my subject in-depth and allowing those stories and emotions to emerge. Winter subjects I found to be no different. In fact, I found those stories and emotions emerging in a powerful, raw way. It was as if these subjects were just waiting to be known and appreciated for their unique beauty. I found myself drawn to the graceful curves of a leaf as it dries and curls, the grace of a flower as it does its last dance, and the fascinating transformation of flowers and plants that take on very different appearances in winter. We are a culture that values youth and vitality, but we must also embrace the beauty and wisdom of age. Photographing in winter helps me to see that more clearly. There is such incredible beauty and grace in the garden in winter.
Winter can be a time of clarity and renewal. I have found that the crispness of the air makes the senses more alert and creative thinking flows. There is a quietness, as if nature is resting. The gardens are far quieter and draw fewer visitors than the other seasons, which adds to the sense of peace. Even in winter, however, the cycle of life and hints of renewal are present.
In the fall, as days grow shorter and the temperatures fall, the chlorophyll of the leaves breaks down and fall colors begin to emerge. The cells holding the leaf to the branch begin to break down and weaken, and most leaves eventually dry and fall off. If you observe trees carefully in fall and winter, you will see that even as they drop their leaves, the buds of next year’s leaves are already in place, quietly waiting to emerge in spring. This is part of the cycle of growth, maturity and renewal. Wintering can allow us all to rest, reflect and re-emerge with a sense of renewal, too.
I look to spring with anticipation and joy, knowing that new growth and color will return to the earth as the snowdrops and crocuses poke their sleepy heads out of the ground. Yet, I will never see winter quite the same again. I will no longer push it away as something to be ignored or complained about, but I will embrace it as a time of rest and renewal, a time to see the earth in a different but equally beautiful part of the growth cycle. Will I feel the need to winter and rest in future years? This year, no doubt, has been like no other for so many of us – a year filled with anxiety, fear, loss and uncertainty. Perhaps the need to pull back will not be as strong as this year, but if the need is there, I know to listen and embrace it. From this year forward I do know that my exploration of the beauty of winter will continue.