24 Apr Home, not away: the Tulip Project – in pictures | Art and design
I have never appreciated my back garden so much.
At this time of year, I’m usually caught up with all the to-ings and fro-ings of the sporting world: taking photos of traditional spring events like the Boat Race and Grand National, or key matches as the football season builds to a crescendo. Normally I’m away a lot, not really passing an eye over developments in my garden. But this is not a normal year.
It was mid-March, and I was sitting despondently in my tiny postage stamp of a garden. The previous week I had photographed the Cheltenham festival, an event I associate with the end of winter, spring coming, the light getting better. A chance to look ahead to a summer of sport, going to events that I love. But this year, the festival had felt all wrong – more like a dangerous party on the eve of war. It seemed all around me the news was harrowing, and sport was getting hammered as event after event was cancelled. My world had suddenly been turned upside-down.
I realised then that I had to reframe and refocus. With all my normal avenues for taking pictures closed off, I needed to find something else. I recalled the words of Ed Jackson, a former professional rugby player whose portrait I had taken exactly a year earlier. After suffering an awful accident that had left him partially paralysed, he had developed a mental process to cope with his new situation: focus on what’s in front of you, focus on things you can affect, and try to forget what’s out of your control.
Remembering this, I looked round the edge of the tiny piece of lawn and noticed some tulip bulbs that my wife had planted in terracotta pots. Lush green leaves with buds full of promise had emerged from the soil, ready to bloom. In these plants, I saw hope. I saw normality.
Mystik Van Eijk, with water droplets, print available here.
It occurred to me then that this process of growth and positivity deserved to be documented. Despite the global madness, nature was thriving – and these tulips seemed to be begging me to tell their story. To me, photography is more than just a career: it is my passion, and in these flowers I found the perfect opportunity to take pictures without leaving my home.
To test myself, I decided not to use any of my main professional cameras. These are more used to the hurly-burly of sport, all fast focusing and speedy motor-drive. Instead, I turned to what I call my “holiday camera”, an upmarket point-and-shoot that I take away on trips with the family (the last thing I want on holiday is to be surrounded by items associated with work, many of which are heavy). Light, easy to manoeuvre around the plants, and – most crucially – able to focus close-up, this small camera actually turned out to be perfect for this project.
As the sun moved round the garden during the day, backgrounds became dark and shadows on the flowers created gorgeous patterns. I would note which times were best to photograph certain plants, and would periodically drop whichever household task I was doing (much to the irritation of my family) to race to the garden and catch the flowers in the perfect light.
Like all photographers, I look to light as another tool in the box, an opportunity to create something different. By varying angles, I could make petals look like paper, tightly bunched flower heads look like lips. Going in tight, I attempted to show the beauty of the flowers in a surreal way. The warm spring sunshine of the last few weeks had not only ushered the tulips into full bloom but enhanced their colour and vibrancy, so some of my photographs gained an almost unearthly quality.
I’ve never felt so lucky to have my garden, this tiny oasis in densely crowded north London. In the land of quarantine, my house has never felt more like a castle, defending me from the warzone outside the front gate. In that castle, my garden is the green inner sanctum, a place of peace and tranquillity.
As I sit here now, in the sunshine, I hear birdsong and the rustling of leaves, with the chirruping of children playing wafting in on the breeze. The sky above my head is free from planes and pollution and a brilliant blue. The sun, bright and sharp at this time of year, makes everything look crisp. In times like these, we remember that nature truly is life-affirming, and the simple act of flowers growing means so much. It shows that in an abnormal world, normality is king.