Maggie Steber is well known for her extraordinary documentary work, for which she has received numerous awards. The place closest to her heart is Haiti, the country to which she has returned often in the past three decades. Her pictures bear witness to the violence and misery there, but most of all they bear witness to the country’s people, whom she photographs with passion and empathy.
So it came as a surprise when she received the prestigious 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship for a purely imaginary, poetic project, The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, a work that is as far removed from documentary photography as a novel is from non-fiction. The project is nominally about her garden, but it is freed from the constraints of reality. The burdens of documenting suffering and decay in the world had weighed on Steber, and after her mother’s death, she became more aware of her own mortality and gave herself the freedom to escape into the land of imagination. This world, which is hers alone and safe, is filled with beauty and poetry.
Lizards live in her garden and in her house in Miami. On impulse, Steber started collecting the dead ones, babies and adults, and storing them in her freezer. She was not exactly sure why she did this, but one day, in her newfound fictional narrative, they became sentries in her garden. She started photographing them, and as their realm expanded, she constructed a magical world in her photographs, populated by a king and queen, babies, workers, and soldiers. The lizards’ duty is to protect the garden because even in secret imaginary gardens, dark forces are lurking.
Her photographs are playful and mesmerizing, much like creatures in a Wes Anderson movie. It is hard not to fall in love with them. Steber’s new lightness of being seems removed from her documentary work, but it is an extension of what she has done all along – uncover the heart and soul that drives humans (or their lizard counterparts). She sees beauty even in the darkest, most hellish places, but now, perhaps, she will continue to push at the boundaries of reality and allow more elements of fantasy into the world she so masterly documents.