Louise Tanguay – our Earth Day Heroine

by Alexander Reford

Autoportrait – Louise Tanguay in the installation Réflexions colorées of the International Garden Festival

Earth Day is an invitation to take stock, inventory the state of the environment, inform, educate and celebrate the best practices and success stories that are making our world better. The inventory process is less than encouraging, our shelves are pretty bare when it comes to success stories. The number of environmental challenges described as “crises” is reaching alarming proportions. With the world at war, the climate changing rapidly, species at risk, development run amok – what is there to celebrate?

For Earth Day this year we are celebrating Louise Tanguay – photographer, environmentalist and ecologist. We are celebrating her lifetime of work and her latest book, The Reford Gardens As Time Goes By, that arrived just in time for Earth Day and the first signs of spring. We have been passing around our advance copies of As Time Goes By (published in French by Flammarion Québec as Les Jardins de Métis – Au fil du temps). And wow – the reactions are wonderful to behold. The book has heft (at 320 pages) and is very affordable (at $39.99). It has a generous format and double-page spreads and is beautifully printed. It has been immaculately curated by its author, designer and photographer – Louise Tanguay. In addition to a short preface by yours truly, it includes the poetic descriptions left by Elsie Reford, carefully selected from her garden diaries and articles, with a smattering of vintage archival photos to provide context and contrast to the vibrant colours found on every other page.  

We have worked with Louise for twenty years. The book is a masterpiece – adding to the beautiful tomes (she has 15 other books to her credit already) that Louise Tanguay has produced since turning her talents from music and graphic design to creating books featuring her photographs. As Time Goes By is also a printed companion to a large-scale work of art, a 40 foot x 4 foot mural entitled As Time Goes By, indeed our largest work of art ever installed, that will greet visitors every summer as they arrive. Affixed to the interpretation screen at the entrance to the gardens, it is composed of more than 500 images taken by Louise Tanguay over two decades. The book is thus a perfect memento of our celebrations of Elsie Reford’s 150th birthday in 2022. Louise has curated a double homage (book and work of art) to dovetail with these celebrations.

So what has motivated Louise Tanguay to be the lens that chronicles our gardens? Friendship is a key element – friendship with our gardeners but also friendship with our place. It is this affinity with people and place that makes Louise’s work stand out in my mind. Our reference library is full of beautiful books of stunning work by the world’s best photographers. But rare is the photographer who embraces both people and place. There is no criticism in her work, no judgment. She does not attempt to flatter or to critique. She takes nature as it is and finds beauty in its modest swirls, delicate raindrops and petals in fierce embrace. Those who know Louise know this to be a personality trait. She may seem reserved at first, but she is quick to embrace a place and its people. Whether living in the rustic simplicity of the keeper’s house in Métis-sur-Mer or a traditional cottage in faraway Greece, her capacity to read a place is just one of her special talents. This has made her such a good traveler and a talented visual interpreter of foreign lands and exotic landscapes.

When we worked together on our first big book, Elsie’s Paradise (we had previously worked on a small format guidebook to the gardens in 2001), I provided the words and she provided the photographs. I began to notice how her photographs almost invariably involve movement. Even though the wind in Metis is her sworn enemy, her images of plants dance across the page. The flower may be perfectly still – yet her images dazzle in her portrayal of their energy. Similarly, her plants and trees all appear to be in love. Hugging, embracing, caressing – these are not verbs generally used in connection with the plant world and yet in her shots they are perfect descriptions of what she has captured. When I show her images at talks I sometimes give to garden clubs or historical societies – her photos quite literally result in “oohs” and “aahs” from audiences – the very same reactions heard when watching acrobats perform at a Cirque du Soleil show. She somehow transforms these often very diminutive plants into larger-than life performers to create magic. The audience is entranced and the shy flower given its brief moment in the spotlight.

This was the task she took on with our second major collaboration – Treasures of the Reford Gardens. There, she not only had to capture the beauty of the dozen species featured in the book, but she had to come back, again and again, to capture them in bloom. This meant spending most of the summer either driving her VW Westfalia – and sleeping in it ­ because she had to be in the gardens at the precise moment that the plants selected by the uncaring author for the book (that would be me) were at peak bloom. It was a labour of love, particularly in the pre-digital era (it took a while for Louise to jettison slide film for the digital universe) when she could be seen slogging around the gardens with as many if not more tools than one of our gardeners. It was heavy lifting and she swore never to do it again. But it left us with a precious legacy of images that exceeds 35,000 photographs. 

I am not a photographer. But much of my work for the nearly thirty years of managing Les Jardins de Métis / Reford Gardens has been curating photographs. I hire photographers, choose photographs for talks and publications, participate in curating photo exhibitions and work with our staff and partners to find the grants and donations required to digitize, archive and properly store our impressive photo collection. From the other side of the editorial table and as an overly enthusiastic consumer of books of photographs, I long ago recognized the special talent of Louise Tanguay.

As time goes by Louise has amassed one of the largest image banks of a single garden that I know of. This puts her in the same founder’s gallery as my ancestor, Robert Wilson Reford, who was no gardener, but was an energetic and enthusiastic photographer. Louise has much more talent than my great grandfather. But there is strange symmetry in his work for Elsie Reford and Louise’s work for me. The workaholic in charge of a garden needs someone with the time and patience to chronicle a garden and its plants, a different pair of eyes to find perfection where the person in charge only sees imperfection. Louise has done this work for me – and for the gardens – for two decades. It has been a remarkable and, dare I say, unique collaboration and partnership.

Gardens are unnatural. Ecological on the surface, they are a fully human creation. Exotic plants are heaved in next to native ones. Manure and leaf mould make things grow faster. The grass is cut every week. Irrigation systems abound. Dead branches are removed. Trees at the end of their life make no sound when they fall because they are removed by men wielding a chainsaw. The beauty that emerges is scripted, a magical artifice, curated and cared for.

Unnatural, yet natural. Louise came to photograph gardens after publishing her first chef d’oeuvre, her large format book Natura. There her talent for capturing the colours and textures of the natural world is found on every page. Her next book Flora presented a different challenge, revealing the forms of plants and flowers in ways that had not been done before. She took on gardens as her next commission. And I know that she found the work difficult. Photographing gardens is a genuine art because the human eye cannot quite literally see the forest for the trees. Capturing on film the tableau of a flowerbed or a planted space requires a capacity to create a frame where there is none, a focal point in the absence of one. Elsie Reford’s garden is more of a challenge than many others in this regard, because of the very personal nature of the spaces she created, flowing one into the next, a riot of colour created by a large variety of plants and the absence of garden punctuation usually provided by walls, hedges, steps or statuary. Louise’s gift to the world of gardens is her ability to make them appear natural.

Gardens are a gift to the earth. Louise has helped us unwrap that gift. Her talent is worthy of celebration. Happy Earth Day.

Alexander Reford

April 22, 2022