Shooting at Chelsea Flower Show

Shooting at Chelsea Flower Show

Allan Pollok Morris discusses the thrill of photography at Chelsea Flower Show.

The Chelsea Flower Show is world’s leading garden festival, there is nothing like it, the most acclaimed gardeners, designers and plants’ people gather to demonstrate their expertise and élan to the most discerning of audiences.

My role amongst them is something of a borrower, making a record of other people’s art and sharing it with the wider world through a variety of mediums. 

Not everyone gets such privileged access to these places and even after 15 years of covering the show gardens it’s still a magical experience.  My secret weapon is being allowed unlimited access to the show ground every morning from 5am and on quieter evenings I can return for sunset and night photography. 

The magic of the early morning in particular can’t be overstated, even though the buses thump down the embankment and the planes circle overhead, there is a visceral sense of having the world to yourself in the most beautiful light.  The freedom to shoot key features while exploring these fine gardens in solitude is, I imagine, as close as you can get to guilt-free scrumping for apples in the gardens of Eden!

With that said it’s not without its pressures and deadlines, particularly on the Monday morning before the show opens to the public and when the press and VIPs have a preview, followed by the Royal visit in the afternoon and the Gala in the evening.  This is when the gardens are at their peak and ready for the RHS Judging panel, so this is the optimum time to photograph them, in the early morning before the show ground gets too busy. 

There is a great deal to accomplish in a brief window, but even though the photographer is at the mercy of the weather, there is a real buzz and some of the contractors are still adding finishing touches to the gardens, this is the perfect time make a photographic record of the gardens with the sun rising through the London plane trees in a moment of time that expresses the zeitgeist in this field of design.

The large format Phase One digital camera I work with creates an exceptional level of capture, but time is of the essence, I am usually finished before the breakfast tours begin as the light is often too harsh by 7:30am.  This means I have to be very selective, but at the same an open mind is the most important tool in looking for a subject or composition that has the sense of something I may not have seen before. 

In a few hours the gardens will be taken over by TV crews and become a playground for press and celebrities, but with my work done I can’t help but feel emotionally invested in the success of the project and for all the people behind the gardens. 

I usually have the help of a good team at the show, many of my clients have a clear brief and give me in-house or agency press and marketing support taking care of press relations and face-to-face reception when the photography moves to portraits of celebrity visitors and press calls.  The world’s media are hungry for such photos around the day, but the congenial atmosphere of Chelsea means there are no media scrums or paparazzi hiding in the hedges!

However, a quick turnaround is needed and I’ll have a digital technician editing my large format imagery on a high quality colour calibrated photo-editing suite on site. It’s such a busy time of year I couldn’t do the flower show work without them. Once I had to shoot the gardens on press day at the RHS Hampton Court  Palace Flower Show and then be at a magazine shoot in the Hamptons 100 miles East of New York the following day, but thanks to my digital technician we were still able to deliver the photos on time.

There is a very close link between the way a garden is made and the way it is photographed and so it is important to look at it, in part, with the eyes of its designer.  The contractors and designers of the gardens are hard at work up to a year in advance and so there is a fine art to gleaning the designer’s vision to make the photographs without getting in the way of their work - literally moving mountains of earth!

The garden designer takes complex, technical ideas, channeling them through a wealth of disciplines to reach the result.  When they work with a sponsor at the Chelsea Flower Show the success of the mix is even more rewarding to work with on camera.  In recent years Brewin Dolphin have been respected supporters of the Chelsea show, raising their flag in the middle of the Main Avenue show gardens and it has been fascinating to work with the wider group of designers they have partnered with.  

The proudest moment for a sponsor has to be achieving the highly coveted ‘Best in show’ award and gold medal as they did with Cleve West and Robert Myers in 2012 and 2013.  With time a little more risk was added to Brewin Dolphin’s portfolio of Main Avenue gardens as they went on to form inspirational partnerships with emerging talent such as Matthew Childs and Darren Hawkes. 

Recently I visited Rosy Hardy’s nursery in Hampshire, to learn more about her garden for Brewin Dolphin at the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  I can’t help but be excited by the potential that surrounds this garden.  Rosy’s 20 plus years as a veteran Chelsea exhibitor in the Floral Marquee is now taking her exceptional expertise and critical eye to the making of her first show garden.

Rosy imparted to me her love of the English landscape, particularly its native plants and chalk streams that have inspired the garden.  As a photographer, this can only be a positive, photographically speaking this could be the first Chelsea garden that takes me out of the show ground and in to the countryside and I look forward to sharing more of those results here.