Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Esther Pullman's panoramic greenhouses at Cape Ann Museum

A five-part panoramic view of Marshall’s Farm Stand, West Gloucester. Esther Pullman photographs.

A five-part panoramic view of Marshall’s Farm Stand, West Gloucester. Esther Pullman photographs.

Abandoned greenhouses evoke a sense of loss. Actively maintained, a greenhouse forms a monument to sustainability, to optimism, to thriving in any environment. But ignored by humans, a forsaken greenhouse seems to mock all that determination, hard work and planning. Like a old stone wall deep in the woods. Or an deserted quarry.

Esther Pullman has photographed greenhouses—not all of them abandoned—for more than two decades. Arranged into more than a dozen triptych panoramas, her digital inkjet prints—most shot locally, others ranging from California to England to Italy—are on view now through June 16 at the Cape Ann Museum.

Pullman’s perspectives are hardly uniform. Intentionally or not, she has focused more on the structure of the greenhouses—wood frames, fans, the peculiar geometry of long, low structures. Shots include doorways leading out to green spaces—like a “Private Estate, Doors,” from a Wellesley greenhouse. Some document the outside environment’s visual impact, like “Entrance, Reynolds House Greenhouse, Rain,” from Winston-Salem, NC.

The basics are all the same: enclosed spaces, but open to the light. The typical opaque glass (or plastic sheeting) of the structures forms a sort of baseline color for her work. Milky white is a given. But it lets the various flora, or the painted and industrial parts of the greenhouse, add color and texture.

Pullman shows a mix of active workspaces and derelict structures. She often captures the haphazard architecture of growing rooms in full bloom. A large panorama of West Gloucester’s Marshall’s Farm Stand greenhouse—“Storms, Fans, and Cat”—pivots its central energy around the low shelving boards, empty (except for a cat), with most of the vegetation visible outside, rather than inside. 

Stowell Park Greenhouse in Gloucestershire, England captures a stately doorway, mature trees filling an airy passageway, the foggy outdoors beckoning for a countryside walk. The array of exotica in “Private Estate Greenhouse, Succulents” from a Wellesley hothouse looks like a fanciful painting from Bruegel. A gorgeous riot—none of it looks real—the shapes, the colors, the setting (and the sign: No Water This Section), all add to the delightfully disjointed effect.

But shots of the untended carvings in “Spring Growth, Horse Topiary,” from a Tuscan botanical garden, are unsettling. Shrubs formed into shapes of riders on steeds, but long untrimmed with unsightly consequences, this triptych makes the whole notion of carving fauna seem like hapless artifice.

Lacking any human presence, her panoramas invisibly accent the one thing that links them all together—the drive to sustain life, and beauty. Some greenhouses thrive, so long as the unseen presence isn’t far afield. But others call out the memory and loss of much human endeavor.

“Green Places/Green Spaces/Greenhouses: Photographic Panoramas by Esther Pullman” runs through June 16 at the Cape Ann Museum. For more information visit www.capeannmuseum.org or call 978-283-0455.

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