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Book Reviews: The Garden

The Garden. Photographs by Alessandro Imbriaco.
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.
Gardener's Question Time with Alessandro Imbriaco
By Colin Pantall

The Garden
Photographs by Alessandro Imbriaco.
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012. Hardbound. 72 pp., 35 color illustrations, 10-1/2x8".

Dirty greens, charcoal greys and dusty browns. A landscape that consists of barren brambles, rambling ivy and mutilated trees. And a family who live in the middle of all this, under a flyover in a landscape next to a swamp. These are the ingredients that won Alessandro Imbriaco the European Publisher's Prize, awarded for his book, The Garden.

The Garden is set in Rome and is a progression of Imbriaco's work on the informal communities that have sprung up around Rome to house an increasing number of migrants coming in search of work.

One of these migrants is Piero, a man Imbriaco met while wandering around the outskirts of the Eternal City. Imbriaco is drawn to those places that the Italians call the Third Landscape; the in between places where the urban and rural meet, areas uncontrolled and unexploited by man, places where random biodiversity holds sway, places essential to the overall health of the planet as a whole and urban conurbations in particular for the environmental benefits they bring.

The Garden, by Alessandro Imbriaco. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

In The Garden, Imbriaco shows us the layers of foliage in the swamp; trees reach up above undifferentiated masses of undergrowth as residential tower blocks rise up in the background. A path disappears into a mess of branches and leaves, a power line stretches across a primordial foreground of ivy-covered tree trunks rising over a fern covered swamp floor.

However, it's the family that live in the swamp that make the book, the idea of the swamp also playing heavily on how one reads the story. Squalor rubs up against romanticism in our visualisation of a place we associate with danger, disease and filth. This is especially true when we see the rest of The Garden's cast, Piero's partner Lupa, and their daughter Angela.

The Garden, by Alessandro Imbriaco. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

Angela in particular dominates the book, and adds to the element of Eden that Imbriaco is actively seeking in his portrayal of the family and their environment. One picture shows Angela nestling in a tree. She is dwarfed by the three trunks that cradle her, her eyes closed in the permanent twilight that inhabits the book. Another catches her relationship with her immediate surroundings in a portrait where she stands against grey-green foliage, her head decorated with a crown of fluffy thistle seeds. Angela is small but independent, somewhat distrusting of the camera, a beautiful country creature fully aware of this intruder into her space.  

The Garden, by Alessandro Imbriaco. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

The magical element is even more apparent in the picture of Piero bathing in a stream. The stream is shallow but fast-running, surrounded on all sides by greenery and trees. Piero's clothes lie draped on tree boughs in the foreground as Piero stands naked in the stream. He has a beard and is bent over like some kind of giant faun, his body strong, statuesque and glowing in the diminishing light of dusk. It's more Pan's Labyrinth than Eden, a spiritual place but one with its dark side, a place that is pagan in nature and more balanced for it.

This division of the family's life from polite Roman society is most apparent in the picture of Angela looking up at the road above her. She's dressed in a long shirt, plastic bowls for bathing are to one side and there her gaze points to the disconnection between Angela's life in the woods that stand behind her and that of the city that is passing over her head in vehicular form day and night.

The Garden, by Alessandro Imbriaco. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

Despite all the romanticism, the hardships of life in the swamp are apparent. So we see the rough shelter where the family live. Piero tends a fire against the walls of the flyover with the random furniture of the al fresco kitchen on his left. There's a table, a couple of chairs, a few old motors and a saw and pan hanging on the flyover wall. The floor is made up of grey cinders, a cocktail of ash, tarmac and twigs. Another pictures shows the basic staple of Piero and Lupa's kitchen – dried milk, coffee, sugar, spices and a pineapple with a tag on it that somehow seems out of place in this most simple of larders.

The Garden, by Alessandro Imbriaco. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.

So it's not a rural idyll and it's not supposed to be. The colour palette of the book emphasise this darkness, an accident that happened because of Imbriaco's habit of photographing at dusk, something that became deliberate when he saw how the colour palette tied his project together.

For all of the strategies that Imbriaco employed, and the doom, gloom and Edenic references he makes, The Garden is not a romantic book. It's strangely matter-of-fact but also mysterious. We get to know Piero, Lupa and Angela a little, we get to see where they live and some of what they inhabit, but there is always a feeling that something more lies beyond the page. The Garden has its space and the family has theirs and the book is all the better for it. In The Garden, there is always room to breathe.

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.