The Secret of Garden Photography

by Phyllis Rose

Photo: Tony Scarlati

Architectural photography is a world unto itself. A world where the photographer can sometimes hide behind technical accuracy and perspective to create a beautiful shot. Landscape architecture photography is quite a different world. It’s never enough to have scale and alignment without beauty and art. That’s where J. Paul Moore’s skill with the camera and his passion for gardening and knowledge of plants give him the ability to find and photograph some of the most beautiful gardens and landscapes in the country.

Paul grew up in the garden center that he co-owned with his parents. There he discovered his own talent for growing plants and his passion for photographing the nature that surrounds him. His Tennessee native plant garden is a twenty-eight-year labor of love and a showcase for some very rare species.

Professionally, Paul photographs all types of garden architecture. A recent Asian-inspired garden provided Paul with the unique challenge of photographing a landscape of shapes, textures, and succulents with virtually no flowers. Three huge millstones were laid into the hardscape. To achieve the interest and splash of color that flowers often provide, Paul soaked the millstones with water to enhance their color and bring out the patterns in the stones.

“I love variety. I love the challenge of photographing different styles of gardens. One of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever photographed was a classic, formal garden in Louisville, Kentucky,” Paul said. The gardens cover thirty acres and include a sunken garden with wisteria pergola, a reflecting pool, and a thirty-foot-tall Elizabethan mound. A spiral of mown grass leading to an obelisk overlooks the other gardens and trees.

According to Paul, this was the garden he almost didn’t photograph. He had been in Louisville photographing for Fine Gardening magazine and had stayed over to attend the Garden Conservancy Open Garden Days. He viewed three gardens, he recounts, but tired and ready to head back to Nashville he almost didn’t go to this fourth of six gardens.

“I did go, however,” Paul said, “and was rewarded with a garden of amazing quality and scope. This is a garden that could fill a book. The owner had heard I was in town, and when the tour closed he allowed me to spend the rest of the day and the next photographing.”

When on assignment, Paul’s process is to walk through the garden to get a feel for the garden’s story, to analyze for the proper light—early, late, or overcast—and he always asks the homeowner or landscape architect, what is their favorite view of the garden.

“It never fails to surprise me. They will lower their voice and with a gleam in their eye say . . . come here, let me show you this,” Paul laughs. “One of my iconic photographs is of a giant oak tree shot through the window of the homeowner’s playroom.”

I would probably have never discovered that angle without being secretly informed and invited by the homeowner.

After Paul takes his insurance shots (those that he has pre-planned to showcase the key views of the landscape), he then feels free to walk around the garden and photograph details and places of interest that he finds most artful. “Because I’m dealing with the unpredictable when I shoot (light, wind, and weather), I don’t know if I have five hours or five minutes to get the shots I need. But when I shoot the key views, if the light is still good I go back and often reshoot. Then if the light continues to hold I go back and do the detailed, fun stuff.

“I especially love anything that frames the view, whether that’s a brick arch or the bend of a tree,” says Paul. “I look for a magical spotlight of sun or a path that beckons ‘walk this way.’ The eye is a much better machine than the camera. So a lot of what I do is see the beauty and allow the camera to frame the art.”

Paul Moore can be reached at

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