When New York was suddenly placed into a lockdown last March, during a period of total isolation, the photographer Karine Laval’s garden became an oasis; she spent time among her flowers, watching the slow bloom as spring turned to summer. It dawned on her that despite regularly photographing nature, she had never photographed her own garden: “So, I took my camera and started to take pictures as a way to escape and cope with the feeling of confinement and anxiety triggered by the pandemic and the lockdown,” she says.
Titled “The Great Escape”, the resultant images are prismatic, with lush greens, yellows, and pinks. The glassy effect makes them almost supernatural, but Laval didn’t employ any editing software. “The distortions, superimpositions and otherworldly colors are created in camera as single frames, using awkward perspectives and reflective surfaces such as mirrors,” she says. These images are now illuminated underground at New York City’s 42nd Street subway station as a part of the MTA’s Arts & Design program. “The heart of the city and its underground are arid and devoid of nature,” says Laval. “So I hope my lightbox installation will bring some colorful life into the subway system and provide an escape, or put a smile on the commuters’ face as people are starting to go back to work and use the subway as we experience the renewed energy of a reopened, reactivated New York City.”
But before they were placed in the underground, Laval decided to hang her images in an open-air exhibition in the very place she took the photos: her garden. Hanging them unadorned along her garden wall, exposed to the elements, the prints underwent the ravaging effects of time and weather to give them a unique patina. “Just as we were at the mercy of nature and the virus, I decided to let go of control and let the works live on beyond me and be altered by the elements,” she says, having hung the works for three months from late summer to fall. “As a result, they have been edited by rain, wind and sun, taking a life of their own.”
For the itinerant Laval, the lockdown was a unique opportunity to watch the seasons pass in a way she hadn’t been able to before, giving her a newfound appreciation for nature in her own backyard. “There is an incredible variety of birds chirping and singing different melodies, which I hadn’t noticed as intensely as I’ve noticed this spring, certainly because the roar of the city has fanned away,” she says. “Sometimes I feel I’m transported into a tropical island or a rain forest.”
Her work is a testament to the power of imagination, and its unlimited capacity to transport us beyond the confines of our homes, our cities, our daily lives. The photographs of her garden aren’t exactly documentary, but rather, they reveal her vision of the natural world: a shimmering technicolor wonder just outside our doors.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
Visit Karine Laval’s website for more information on her work.