Of Birch and Belief

Reflections on the Winning Image

Of Birch and Belief
Photo: Left by Lee Acaster

The winner of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition 10, Lee Acaster, entranced judges with his challenging yet beautiful photograph of autumnal birch trees, entitled Left. Its depth, detail, character and mystery, elevated a drizzly Snowdonian day into a scene with spiritual, even religious connotations.

Judges were impressed by how the photograph encourages us to perhaps spend a little more time than usual in order to understand its meaning and merits. This is not to say that striking summer colours or spectacular sunsets are no less valid or skilful, it just means that our normal associations with winning shots are challenged and this is a good thing.

Susan Brown, Representative of the Royal Photographic Society said: “Those of us that spend our lives surrounded by photography see many competent and inspirational images regularly. IGPOTY submissions showed a wide range of potentially winning images, but sometimes a photograph just jumps out as being different, from a photographer who looks at the world in an individual way.”

To express a distinct yet appealing individual style is more difficult than it may seem and can take a long time to get right. Lee’s work shows a commitment to his own style and the winning picture is a clear representation of this vision. The shot, whilst highly original remains extremely faithful to the subject matter: the trees themselves. There is a great sense of honesty about it, existing both on the surface and through an invitation for further exploration of nature’s truths.

Its muted inky background tones may, at first glance, invoke curiosity, even scepticism, but then the dazzling leaves throughout the central plane impart an undeniable intensity which binds the composition together. As Clare Foggett, Editor of The English Garden puts it: “It demands closer inspection.” We realise the darkness of the lake acts as the perfect canvas for the birch trees to display a last defiant act of colour.

And perhaps this is even why so many of us love autumn. Not because of the colours alone but because of what they represent: the defiance of death; and the assurance of new life and new beginnings. To reveal this level of meaning in a photograph is one of the joys of the competition, and part of this discovery of course goes beyond the immediate technicalities of photography. Indeed, there is a wider comment to be made here about how photography can remind us to take notice of the world in a different and more profound way.

Above all, judges believed it answered one very important aspect of the competition criteria. Does it inspire others to go out and take photographs of plants, gardens and green spaces? Whilst located in Snowdonia, the subjects of the scene are very accessible and widely known, adding to a sense of familiarity. It just goes to show you don’t need to jet off to a far away location to capture something special. The answers may be much closer to home.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is a hallmark of any good artist, but so is the willingness to put in the hours, as Lee said: “I’m a big believer that practice makes perfect, and after countless hours in forests and knee deep in hedgerows I feel I’ve become much more visually attuned to the elements of a scene that appeal to me.”

Even though the end product of our endeavours can be breathtaking, when it comes to anything artistic, we all have to start somewhere. It is from these beginnings we can develop a sense of belief in what we’re trying to achieve. So what are you waiting for? The hardest part is yet to come.