Merry Christmas

A Christmas cheer from a story I shot for Martha Stewart Living.


I heart Brooklyn

I've been spending a lot of time walking around the city, and I am heartened by all the ceaseless life going on around me. On my way home from the print lab yesterday, I saw a sky right out of a Turner painting, a man aloft on a crane painting a massive mural of flying birds on the side of a building, and a young man singing soulfully on the subway platform. Nothing but unexpected beauties.


Love letter to Brooklyn

In a dreary corner of Brooklyn, the artist Stephen Powers, also known by his tag name ESPO, painted fragments of poetic phrases in graphic letters that demand to be read. The work is entitled "Love Letter to Brooklyn" and took 13 days to paint. I love seeing this every time I take the subway to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, its cheery message splashed extravagantly across a dull parking garage.


Getaway Dream

Address Is Approximate from The Theory on Vimeo.

I used to live in California and still dream of the West Coast sometimes. This wonderful video captures my getaway dream so perfectly. Amazing work.


A liquid morning

After days of brilliant sunshine comes a soft and liquid morning, where droplets of rain cling precariously to arching branches and damp fallen leaves carpet the ground. I wish there more autumn days like this before winter sets in.

The Dutch photo collector, Erik Kessels, whose installation at the Foam photography gallery in Amsterdam makes an overwhelming point about the mind-numbing age of infinite Flickr uploads in which we live, points out rightfully that we are "drowning in pictures of the experiences of others." And I am guilty of adding to the deluge with these photos of my walk around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden today.


Autumn Light

We've had the most brilliant autumn days this week. Mornings come with the light slanting on the wall, moving slowly through the day until an abrupt darkness falls in the late afternoon. The streets in my neighborhood are aflame with every shade of crimson and gold. I love this time of year in all its melancholic tone.


Bringing Nature Home

This is the  reason for my lack of posts in the last couple of months. I've been hard at work putting my book together. Bringing Home Nature will be published by Rizzoli next April. I just went over the first proofs with the book designer, and everything looks great, with some minor adjustments. It's been a long haul, but the end is finally in sight. I'm looking forward to holding the actual book in my hands.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from the foreword written by Deborah Needleman, which sums up the idea of the book:

Ngoc’s book is a sonnet to the seasons. It rejoices in the beauties particular to each, and to the immense joy to be had from paying witness to those changes, and of bringing its fruits into the home. That is the message of this book, made abundantly clear through Ngoc’s text and the effect of her poetic photographs. But underlying that, her pictures also reveal her expansive appreciation for the variety of ways flowers have been used in different cultures and times in history. 


Only Love and Then Oblivion

World Trade Center & Lower Manhattan from Empire State, January 1973
Photo by Jonathan Barker

"There is only love, and then oblivion."
Ian McEwan, writing in the Guardian on September 15, 2001


The Necessity of Beauty

"Beauty's dynamic is not perfect or ideal. It is subject to the same logos of death, decay and transformation as all creation. Who would Persephone, a lovely girl-goddess of spring be without her husband Hades, a silly maiden with flowers in her hair? Her real beauty, the necessity of the occasion of her beauty requires her to spend fall and winter in the underworld loving her husband and weaving the threads of destiny. Necessary beauty has character, gravitas, sorrow, comedy and joy. Beauty without gravity may be a decorous ruse. Beauty without shadow is probably an illusion, and beauty without vitality a trap. Beauty may be stark but never vain, and joy may emerge as sorrow's final cry."
"The Necessity of Beauty"

A wonderful essay on beauty, a subject that is much on my mind these days as I finish my book.

Photograph of chrysanthemums taken for the book this morning.


Night Sky

Milky Way viewed from Death Valley
Mikly Way viewed from Lava Beds National Monument
Photographs by the Night Sky Team

"We human beings lose something of ourselves when we can no longer look up and see our place in the universe."
David Crawford of the International Dark-Sky Association, from a must read article on light pollution and the efforts to keep the night sky unimpaired in our national parks.


A Dahlia

Un Dahlia
Paul Verlaine

Courtisane au sein dur, à l'oeil opaque et brun
S'ouvrant avec lenteur comme celui d'un boeuf,
Ton grand torse reluit ainsi qu'un marbre neuf.

Fleur grasse et riche, autour de toi ne flotte aucun
Arôme, et la beauté séreine de ton corps
Déroule, mate, ses impeccables accords.

Tu ne sens même pas la chair, ce goût qu'au moins
Exhalent celles-là qui vont fanant les foins,
Et tu trônes, Idole insensible à l'encens.

Ainsi le Dahlia, roi vêtu du splendeur,
Elève sans orgueil, sa tête sans odeur,
Irritant au milieu des jasmins agaçants!

There is no satisfactory English translation of this poem (at least not that I know of), which reminds me of how impossibly difficult to translate from one language to another. Verlaine's description of a dahlia, the metaphoric flower-woman, is full of rancor. The poem reflects Verlaine's bitterness in the failure of his relationship with his first love, Elisa. His barely contained misogyny is projected into nature, into the guise of the dahlia, an opulent beauty without perfume.

I like the alternating tercets addressed to the courtisan/woman (1 and 3) and to the flower (2 and 4) an interesting structure, something that the two translations I read completely ignored.


The world is so vast

Wild lupines, Norfolk, Connecticut
Frangipani tree, Key West
Palm Beach
Bay Bridge, San Francisco
São Paulo
Paraty, Brazil
Ipanema, Rio de Jainero
Paraty, Brazil
Paraty, Brazil

"I must leave the bonds that kept me confined, and move elsewhere. Move on, move on, move on. Move like the waterfall, like the ocean waves, like the birds at down, like the light at sunrise. That is why the world is so vast, the earth so extraordinary, the sky so infinite... That is why the call of death is nothing but the same call to change one's abode."
Rabindranath Tagore, "Travel"

This is how I used to feel when I was young. I lived in different countries, made my home in different continents, always moving on. Now that I am older, I want to attach myself to a small piece of the earth, to cultivate my garden, and to find what T. S. Eliot so eloquently calls "a still point of a turning world." But the life that I have carved out for myself keeps me moving. These are just some of the places I've been in the last couple of months.


The re-enchantment of flowers

I've been too busy to post anything lately, but here is a blogpost about me on Martha Stewart Weddings website.


Paraty, Brazil

Paraty viewed from the seaA small island in the bay off Paraty
Restaurant by the water
Swimming spot surrounded by islands that are kept as nature reserves

Horse- drawn carriage

The church Santa Rita at sunset

Paraty is a lovely colonial town on Brazil's southeastern coast, the Ilha Grande Bay. It's surrounded by mountains and the sea. Founded in 1531, the town was a busy port in the 18th century, when ships filled with gold sailed regularly from Paraty to Portugal. Today, the town is a national historic monument and the buildings strictly preserved.

The sea around Paraty is pristine and dotted with hundreds of small islands. The emerald green water is great for swimming, and the islands are lush with vegetation. Ferns, plants, and even fruit-bearing trees grow out of the rock outcroppings. It is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.


Nothing is so beautiful as spring

At last a sunny day, which makes me think of the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem, "Spring." I also like this from the same poem: "The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush the descending blue; that blue is all in a rush with richness."

Indeed, the descending blue.


Spring in California

I just returned from having spent ten days in California. Every year since my father's passing away, I go back there in early April to be with my family on the anniversary of his death. I find myself in the same place, at the same time, where everything seems the same but nothing really is. The same flowers bloom - my father's lilacs and peonies, roses in the neighbor's front yard, the dogwood in my sister's garden - but I see everything through the prism of his absence. Every flower I marvel at is another flower that my father will never see.

The days hurried past and here I am back in my own home. The strongest memory I've carried back with me is an afternoon spent alone with my oldest brother. The two of us picked oranges and sat talking under the grapefruit tree. There is much that separates us, but we are bound, as if by an invisible thread, by the things that our father taught us. As I sat there with the warmth of the sun on my back and my brother's voice filling the space between us, I felt my father's absence and presence all at once, and it made me more happy than I had been in a long time.


Heralds of Spring

It is said that no universally accepted event heralds the spring. Meteorologists marks the season's beginning on March 1. For astronomers and most of us, spring arrives on the vernal equinox, which falls somewhere around the 20th of March, depending on the year. Still others have a more personal marker for the start of the season: the first flush of the yellow daffodil, the return of birdsong in the early morning hour, or the first flower on the dogwood tree. In 1736, the English naturalist Robert Marsham started to document 27 "Indications of Spring." For 62 years, without interruption, he recorded the dates different trees came into leaf, flowers bloomed, frogs first croaked and butterflies appeared. He noted the first swallow of the year as they flew over Stratton Strawless in Norfolk at the end of their 6,000-mile journey from southern Africa. Marsham's observations became the basis of phenology, the study of the effects of the seasons on plants and animals.

We have passed the vernal equinox, and the day is now officially longer than the night, but I am still waiting for spring. The crocuses have come up, and the robins are back in town, but we've had a freezing rain for the last two days. The sun is now peeking out of the clouds, at the end of an unremittingly grey day, setting the brick buildings across the street aflame. I am heartened at the sight of my bleeding heart plants pushing through the ground and know that spring cannot be far away.


The Secret of Happiness

"[Gardening] connects you with what is outside yourself like few other activities, and that is the secret of happiness."
Diana Athill, writer, in a wonderful article about the lure of gardening for various writers.

I came home last night after being away for most of the last two weeks on photo shoots. Today is a bright sunny day and I spent an hour working on a client's garden, mostly pruning and clearing dead branches to make way for spring planting. Spring can't come soon enough.



Poster designed by James White and Signalnoise Studio

I spent the last week in Palm Beach and the Bahamas photographing sumptuous homes, filled with expensive art and luxurious possessions. Every night in my hotel room, I watched the footage of the destruction in Japan on the news and was reminded of the fragility of existence and the futility of the material world.

There is a centuries old tradition in Japan where Zen monks, samurai and others compose poems at moments of death. The monk Kozan Ichikyo, wrote these lines on the morning of February 12, 1360:

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

When he finished, he laid down his brush and died sitting upright.



Galanthus nivalis

From the Greek word gala, for milk, and anthos, for flower, are the roots of the snowdrop's Latin name. The species name, nivalis, means "of the snow," so Galanthus nivalis literally means "milk flower of the snow." It's a fittingly poetical name for this gem of a flower that braves the cold and shows itself even in the bleakest of winter days. In some countries, it's known as fair maids of February. In French, it's called perce-neige, which literally translates as snow-piercer.

Fear no more, thou timid Flower!
Fear no more the winter's might,
The whelming thaw, the ponderous shower,
The silence of the freezing night.

"The Snowdrop"
Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Visual Break

Sam Taylor-Wood directed her fiance Aaron Johnson in a video for REM's song Uberlin. Great dancer.


Spring, almost

March, from the Roman Martius, was the first month of the Roman calendar. The Anglo-Saxons called it "Hlyd monath," meaning Stormy month, or "Hraed monath," Rugged month. To me March is both a stormy and rugged month, but it is also "a month of expectation." The sun is bright but the chill still lingers in the air. In the garden, the dead hydrangea blooms are worn down almost to nothing but delicate filigrees that barely hang onto the branches. Any moment now, they will give way to new buds, like the ones filling up the magnolia trees. Hellebore blossoms, enveloped in glossy new foliage, are pushing out of the soil. Crocuses have burst into flowers. The witch hazels are fading fast, while tiny yellow winter aconites are making their cheery appearance on the ground. It is spring, almost.