Painterly Photographs of Plants As Seen Through Greenhouse Windows

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Photography by Samuel Zeller

Switzerland-based photographer Samuel Zeller travelled to 25 cities photographing their botanical gardens, to oddly calming effect

Samuel Zeller’s photographic series Botanical was prompted by a particularly bad day at the office in 2015. “I was on the way home,” he remembers, “and I got off the train a stop early to visit Geneva’s botanical gardens, a place that has an incredibly tranquilising effect on me. When my emotions are strong it reflects in my photography, it’s a catalyst. This project started there and a year later I left my job.”

Zeller had been slaving away as a graphic designer, working long hours illuminated by the blue light of his computer. This was in drastic contrast to his childhood – the child of artist parents, his interests ran to Impressionism, botanical illustrations and the natural world. That moment in the gardens clarified something: “I realised how much I was missing being outdoors and how photography could help me travel more. Most importantly, I understood how photography allowed me to look at the world the way I looked at it when I was a child.”

His world changed shape almost at once. He travelled to more than 25 cities and botanical gardens around Europe, zigzagging between greenhouses in Glasgow, Warsaw, Paris, Amsterdam, Nantes, Dundee and Ghent. He built a series that runs to over 100 images, which have now been compiled into a book by Hoxton Mini Press.

One pleasure of the range of images is seeing how the architecture differs across countries. There is the 19th century Kibble Palace in Glasgow, a wonder of steel and glass; the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in Paris, now abandoned and filled with wild, unruly plants; the Jagiellonian University Botanical Garden in Kraków, which dates back to 1783. Zeller recalls, “It has an almost steam-punk vibe, with its faceted walls and cracked windows and its huge gem-shaped structure”.

Some shots are taken from inside, but most depict plants as seen through an enclosing surface, their shape and colours warped by condensation, glass quality and sunlight. The images are given coherence and context by the metal frames, but in between the shapes run riot, nearly abstracted in the style of Impressionism’s many brush strokes. There is also the sense of alteration and abundance that comes with working with glass, changing seasons and living things.

“Because of the way the glass refracts, there’s an infinite amount of photographs to be made,” Zeller says. “It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope. If I slightly move myself, then the whole image changes; what’s behind the glass is transformed, the reflections on the glass move. An hour later and the whole picture is different, a month later plants will have evolved and the scene will have changed.”

Samuel Zeller’s Botanical is out now, published by Hoxton Mini Press. An exhibition of the series is on at The Print Space, London until May 2, 2018.