Work the Soul Must Have: On the Photographs of Johanna Tagada-Hoffbeck

There is a particular photograph, taken by Johanna Tagada-Hoffbeck this past spring, of the skin of an onion, gossamer-thin and quietly glowing as it rests on a sheet she has laid out in her garden to take the picture. Wonderfully vermillion and still half-formed, it holds the contours of the food it once encased.

Something about this suggestion of history, however small, is a poignant clue to the series as a whole. ‘An entire world unfolds in each petal,’ Tagada-Hoffbeck muses, in the diary she kept alongside these photographs, and we begin to see that sentiment unfold through her eyes. Elsewhere, baskets of verdant herbs overflow; rows and rows of bulbs are placed in lines into the soft brown earth; and clusters of yellow-orange flowers are grouped together in the evening light like little Sulphur lamps strung through long grass. All of life can be found in the garden.

Tagada-Hoffbeck is an artist with gardens in both Essex in the UK, and the rural, forest-filled region of Alsace in northeastern France. Alsace, they say, has its own sunny microclimate – the perfect place for things to grow – and it is in the latter of these gardens she found herself earlier this year, when the Covid-19 lockdown struck and strict French rules kept her in the village. ‘For a long time I found stillness in movement, and here I was encountering movement in stillness,’ she writes, remembering trips taken across the world. For now, her voyages would be through her garden, and into her own history too. Her photographs weave through moments of perfect stillness, and hours spent alone, to the days spent with her father, Thierry, working side by side. We see how he and her take cuttings and make bunches, picked and passed on to loved ones, and how the two of them discuss everything and nothing over cups of herbal tea, turning cut flower-heads in warm hands. Through her pictures we see small waves of conversation that ebb and flow between them, and then the silence while they work, lost in their own reveries.

Tagada-Hoffbeck has a singularly tender way of capturing moments of both solitude and community in her photographs, sensitive and receptive to the workings of nature around her. Her affection for horticulture is in her lifeblood, grown from the seeds of her grandparents’ green-fingers and their love of gardening the very same land we see in some of these pictures. It has been spreading through her artwork like weeds or mushrooms ever since.

‘I have sown them here and will send him paintings of plants,’ she writes thoughtfully, thinking for a moment of the gardener who had gifted her some seeds back in 2019, and taught her the horticultural practice of veganic farming. All those little associations between plants and people.

Her own seeds are plants and vegetables, and words and pictures too. She paints often, and her photographs are also like paintings, awash with hues and expressive – always finding visual harmonies to denote. All of the images she took during this time are part of a body of work of 35mm film photography titled Analog Diary and she only had them developed months after she took them; something about the slowness and the tactile nature of the analog process feels right to her – like planting ideas and harvesting them later.

Almost all of our universes got smaller this year, as the virus took hold of our societies; yet we still took solace in their organisation. For Tagada-Hoffbeck, her garden became her sanctuary, and above all, her photographs crystallise the rituals we build our lives around. Picking up her camera and walking the ten minutes from her family home to the garden each day, the taking of those pictures – the careful visual cataloguing of species and colours, forms and textures – became a new ritual for a strange time.

There is a reason we walk when we feel uneasy, and why we head for the garden when our emotional or elemental equilibriums are disrupted. Life begets life.

‘The garden gave me hope when I had not much left,’ Tagada- Hoffbeck writes finally. For her, the garden meant freedom.

Autumn is arriving in both of her gardens now, and she has made it to the one in Essex. Pinks and brilliant yellows are becoming dusky reds and oranges. Across seas but connected between green spaces, her and her father will continue to grow new things, tend to what is already there and watch these spaces turn; both together and alone, involved in work for their souls.

Last year, some time before this strange virus took hold of our lives and changed the way our days unfold, the poet and essayist Anne Boyer wrote a piece in which she detailed the blueprints of a space for communal grief that she had dreamed up long ago. ‘Before I got sick, I’d been making plans for a place for public weeping,’ she wrote, ‘hoping to install in major cities a temple where anyone who needed it could get together to cry in good company and with the proper equipment.’ She went on to detail the sorts of columns it would have, the types of statues and moldings. How wonderful, I thought, to conjure this precisely imagined monument to human emotion that can be used and worn by us. Ever since, I have been thinking about the ecology of emotions, trying to picture what a space built for feeling might look like. What sort of elemental conditions or precise ecosystem would it need to thrive? Where would our hearts and our feet want to take us to be joyful, or to suffer or to heal? After spending time with the pictures of flora and fauna that Tagada-Hoffbeck took between March and May this year, lovingly printed and edited, and sent to me soon after, I am more and more convinced that this space could only be a garden brimming with life.