I was photographing Quarryhill Botanical Garden for a magazine story last month and stumbled across these huge gorgeous red berries of Cornus kousa. Why did I immediately think of Christmas?
Before I go into a bit of lore, let me explain about “stumbling across” the picture. I was in the middle of the garden working every angle of an unusual Crepe myrtle tree, Lagerstroemia subcostata (below), when I suddenly noticed the Kousa dogwood. I get tunnel vision sometimes when I work, getting so absorbed in one beautiful thing I don’t see others.
As I worked to establish a bit of reference on the Crepe myrtle, I framed it beyond a large, out of focus shrub in the foreground. A nice technique – playing off the light and dark areas, making the glowing autumn foliage all the more special as revealed in the garden beyond the shadows.
The shrub ? You guessed it – the Kousa dogwood. Now, note the berry cluster in the upper part of the dark, out of focus shrub. Think of that cluster while I reverse the technique of playing light and dark areas off of each other. Instead of the dark area serving to frame the light area, I will focus on the cluster in the dark area, slow down my shutter speed, and let the light area go out of focus.
Suddenly I see what was there all along – Christmas-red berries in amongst green foliage. (See the Crepe Myrtle beyond ?) And I begin to work on a new subject, trying different compositions and exposures to bring out the red, to penetrate the shadows, thinking this should be a classic red and green holiday picture. Some editor some day will need a photo just like this . . . or this . . .
But how did red and green become so ubiquitous at Christmas time? There seem to be several different stories wrapped up in the origins of the Christmas tree. The one that seems to make the most sense to me originates from the 13th century when early Christian churches performed Miracle Plays to illustrate Bible stories. The Adam and Eve story, the Paradise Play, was performed on December 24th and the prop for the tree of paradise was a pine tree with apples tied on.
The tree tradition spread throughout northern Europe and eventually the red of the apple and the green of the pine tree came to be associated with all things Christmas. I love that the symbols originated in a garden.
These sorts of symbols are the stuff I keep my crass commercial eye looking for – ways to sell pictures. So I kept photographing, thinking just maybe I had stumbled across a useful and pretty picture.
The biggest trick about stumbling across pretty picture is – to go out and take pictures. The beauty will reveal itself.
Happy holidays !