“The garden is not far from my home. It is green and colorful, enclosed by tall hedges of yew and hornbeam. The garden is enormous, but its clever design—with many different garden rooms—makes it feel cozy and intimate.” The garden Lou-Lou van Staaveren describes in the end pages of her book Pleasant Place is located in Aalsmeer, a town just south of Amsterdam, tucked away behind the city’s airport. Three years ago marked the beginning of a family project that would unfold across an empty plot of land near her parents’ house. Today, as we walk down the garden path under a hot August sun, she points out her Dad’s bed of peonies, her sister’s wild flowers and her own vegetable patch. A flurry of bright color with endless things to look at, the garden’s book counterpart brings about many of the same feelings as a walk through the real Pleasant Place.

“Wheelbarrow,” from the series “Pleasant Place,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

Spring and summer are the busiest times of the year in the garden, and consequently for van Staaveren’s practice too, which has recently been devoted to making peony portraits. Unsatisfied with the results, the short window of time to photograph them ran out so she’ll have to wait until they come back next year to try again. Shrugging off the disappointment, patience and an acceptance of failure are just a few of the many things one can learn in the garden whose uses extend far beyond the hedge enclosure. Like many artists who came before her—painters like Claude Monet, filmmakers like Derek Jarman, and photographers such as Edward Steichen and fellow Dutch artist Elspeth Diedrix—van Staaveren’s work in the garden is deeply intertwined with her practice. She is an artist-gardener, researching what that pursuit looks like and means in this fragile and unpredictable day and age.

“Selection of peony portraits / failed attempt,” 2022 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

Pleasant Place is translated from the Latin ‘locus amoenus,’ a literary concept that envisions an idyllic physical or mental space of safety and peace. It is not only the title of her book, but also a framework that van Staaveren recently came up with to encompass all of her practice and research. She has always been interested in how people relate to their natural environments and originally wanted to become a wildlife documentary filmmaker. Since taking up photography, she has been searching for a way to express her “love for nature” all the while questioning what this actually means today and in what tangible way it can be manifested. And so, the journey towards Pleasant Place was a personal one informed by an overlapping set of circumstances; the beginnings of the garden in Aalsmeer and its roots in her family history, the trying times of the pandemic and the perpetual backdrop of the climate catastrophe.

“Dad,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

The photographer’s family come from Aalsmeer, whose huge flower auction has earnt the town the nickname the “flower capital of the world.” One side worked as a flower farmer (“it’s just what you do here, there aren’t many other options,” she says) and visiting the gardens of grandparents, aunts and uncles had always been part of family life. Growing up in a suburban Vinex neighborhood—a Dutch housing programme developed in the nineties to accommodate an increasing population—the family made the most of the small space afforded to them, taking part in local garden competitions with the lush, green oasis they had created in a sea of concrete identikit buildings. As a child, van Staaveren even had her own plot; a modest one square meter surrounded by a trimmed box, twinned with an equally small square that belonged to her sister.

“Allium,” from the series “Still Life Experiments,” 2022 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

Since moving to Amsterdam, there had been various attempts at making a balcony garden but it was the collective family plot that embedded gardening in van Staaveren’s everyday life as she began to document its evolution. This empty space was full of possibility, inviting her both to dream of what might come and physically devote time into making things happen—the crosspollination of inaction and action, imagination and reality that nurtures most creative processes. It was in this daily act of creating and caring for the plot of land, camera on hand, that van Staaveren began to unearth a personal connection to her surroundings that she explores and expresses through her images.

“Untitled,” from the series “Pleasant Place,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

As surveyed in The Photographer in the Garden, an Aperture publication central to van Staaveren’s research, gardening has provided inspiration across the realms of scientific, art and vernacular photography. Basking in the joy of colors, textures, shapes and patterns of its varied inhabitants, photographers have always found the perfect muse in the garden with its proximity to the darkroom, good lighting conditions, ever-changing elements and abundance of (mostly) still subjects. In fact, George Eastman of Kodak fame, was a garden enthusiast who developed beautiful, elaborate gardens both at home and on the grounds of the Eastman Kodak Company factories, not only used to produce food for his family and staff but also to test new photographic materials.

“Hyacinth,” from the series “Still Life Experiments,” 2022 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

The pleasures of experimentation, shared by many artist-gardeners, can be felt throughout all of van Staaveren’s images. Celebrating the garden’s progress, she plays with different techniques from hand-painting images to digital scanning experiments, emphasizing the materiality of each flower and plant she turns her lens to. But photographing the garden isn’t just a means to an end—the image. The two practices share many similarities and often feed into each other: both flit between intervention and control, between imagination and observation. Both result in new perspectives on place, hinging on a keen attention and a state of hyper-focus on your surrounding environment. “It definitely boils down to looking,” she explains.

“Happy,” from the series “Pleasant Place,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

In adding the camera into her gardening toolbox, the two practices have become interdependent, providing a guide to how and when photography could enter van Staaveren’s daily routine. “At the end of the day when the light is low and nice, and you’re tired, you’ve been working all day, you sit down and start looking around. There’s so much to see. Photography gives you a break to look at things,” she says. Adopting the cyclical nature of the garden, she has become a kind of “seasonal photographer” that tends to slow down and retreat indoors during the winter, editing images and playing in the studio, before spring and summer bring her back outdoors to shoot. In an era of chronic stress, hyper-distraction and never-ending screen-time, this cycle offers a different approach to capitalism’s obsession with productivity: one that takes its cue from the rhythms of the garden.

“Untitled,” from the series “Pleasant Place,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

In The Well Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, a book central to the photographer’s thinking, British psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith extolls the countless therapeutic benefits of tending to the garden in a time of disconnection. She also proposes the idea that “all gardens exist on two levels: on the one hand, there’s the real, physical garden and on the other there’s the garden of our imagination.” A place that one can retreat into and recuperate no matter where you are. As well as industriously documenting the small triumphs and failures of her real garden, van Staaveren’s Pleasant Place also sketches out a fictional one, composed of photographs from her many trips to gardens all over Europe. The book offers us a garden that drifts between fantasy and reality; an adult daydream, full of visual pleasure.

“Marqueyssac,” from the series “Pleasant Place,” 2021 © Lou-Lou van Staaveren

In some ways it’s a daydream steeped in escapism; a meditative respite from the anxieties of daily life—of which there have been many over the past couple of years. But learning to get lost in garden time is a powerful act, deepend by its spiritual and political dimensions. Nurturing growth, encountering potential and surprise by tuning into your local environment and becoming self-sufficient provide much-needed optimism in a time where it is running scarce. As Stuart-Smith points out, “seeds have tomorrow built in.”

One of van Staaveren’s next projects, also titled Pleasant Place, is a series of collectable booklets about the art of gardening, each issue revolving around a different theme. Drawing together stories from the gardening world as well as contributions by artists and experts, the publication takes an inviting, practical angle. With a bright visual language, it offers a hands-on way of connecting with your surroundings—one that counteracts the dogmatic “opgeheven vingertje” (wagging finger) tone that is so often used when it comes to discussions on the environment. Encouraging and down-to-earth, it suggests that anyone can, and should, seek out their own Pleasant Place.