Culture- ART FEATURE- Lush life: Sam Abell in full bloom

In The Digital Journalist, longtime National Geographic photographer Sam Abell recalls the only sentence he learned from Vanuatu's Namba people in 1973 was "I'd like to go to the garden today." Judging by the images in his current Les Yeux du Monde exhibition, "Seeing Gardens," he seems to have been repeating the phrase ever since.

Abell finds gardens everywhere: in a patch of unmelted snow ornamenting a barren green tundra in the Yukon Territory; in a fountain-like plant flowing down a vertical orange wall in the Grand Canyon; even in the multicolored buds tucked in the placket of an Indian man's white shirt.

Sometimes no living plants are even necessary. In "After the Hailstorm," two chairs upholstered in brown flowered vinyl flank a round table blanketed with white petals and greenery. A closer look, however, reveals the "petals" are actually marble-sized hail lying amid leaves ripped from trees by a recent Colorado storm.

The current exhibition's oversized color prints are blow-ups of images originally presented in Abell's book, Seeing Gardens. The large scale not only enhances the photographs' impact, it also allows viewers to observe closely Abell's expert eye for the interplay of color and composition. 

In "Potter's Garden," taken in Hagi, Japan, stone slabs bridging a koi pond form a diagonal bisecting the lower third of the photo. To the left, orange and yellow mottled fish churn in a circle beneath the water's surface, while above, red and yellow maple trees flare from a landscape of rounded green shrubbery. A lone orange koi swims to the right of the bridge, providing punctuation.

Abell's gift is conveying a sense of place. Often his images visually fulfill romantic myths we share about locations. In "Santa Rosa, California," his camera looks across sprouting seed trays in a rustic greenhouse and out through a window opening onto rose bushes and trees basking in the sun. It's the blue-skied hippie paradise promised by the Mommas and the Poppas' "California Dreaming." 

Similarly, the wild and lush rhododendron tunnel arching darkly over a dirt path in "The Appalachian Trail," shot in North Carolina, calls to mind the mysterious, story-filled landscape of Charles Fraser's Cold Mountain. And the banded shoots of green bamboo rising vertically from a sea of golden maple leaves in "Moso Bamboo, Saiho-Ji Temple" capture a Zen aesthetic.

Abell himself will be at Les Yeux du Monde on April 21, 3-5pm, to discuss his photography. I'd like to go to the garden that day. 

Sam Abell's "Seeing Gardens" is on exhibit at Les Yeux du Monde through April 27. The artist will give a gallery talk and sign books Sunday, April 21, 3-5pm. 115 S. First St. 973-5566.