Finding the Forest – and the Trees

So pleased to have this inside view of Photo Research by Susan Ferguson of Ferguson Resources.

© Park with flowers, Michal Bednarek/
© Park with flowers, Michal Bednarek/

Like many photo researchers, I have a background that may seem unrelated to photography or publishing. My degree is in Ornamental Horticulture with additional studies in art and architectural history, and cultural geography. My experience of the business of photography has been through my brother, who was a studio, advertising and nature photographer, and now the owner of a high-resolution stock footage library.

I’ve been looking for garden images since my first job with California State Historic Parks, where I was working with a team of landscape architects and historians to document landscape use and plant introductions for park interpretative planning. I was very interested in garden history and historic preservation and this was a dream job. But it was temporary and I moved on in my horticultural career, first to agricultural research and later to field trials for trees and bedding plants.

The flower trials were in a large display garden, the beginning of many rewarding seasons in several public gardens. Along with growing plants, my responsibilities grew to include more historical research, education and exhibit planning, and garden publications. I was searching for and collecting images again in order to tell garden stories, from 18th century flower gardens to colonial beekeeping to Monet’s garden, basic botany, rose history, and the evolution of plants through fossils.

When there were changes at the garden where I worked, a city reorganization that transferred the facility to a different department, serendipity found me a new job. Meredith Publishing, the parent of Better Homes & Gardens, was located in the same city. I’d gotten to know some of the writers and editors for the magazine through the adult education programs at the garden, as teachers and students. When a photo researcher was needed for the garden book group, I was asked if I might be interested. It was a perfect match. And to my delight, I’m still searching for garden photos for books, magazines, newsletters and online resources.

Sources for garden publishing projects are many. Publishers sometimes have their own garden library. For books and magazines I then go to individual garden photographers. Some I have known and followed for years and I am constantly watching for talent new to me. The best ones are photographer/gardeners who know the botanical names, the details of garden design and horticultural technique. We speak the same language so the specific requests I make for a plant variety, an aspect of design or garden procedure are clear to all of us. For plant pests and diseases, I rely on the land grant university plant science departments and an online resource, at least to start.

From there I may be combing the internet, at the big and small stock houses, Flickr and similar sites, garden blogs, museums, research gardens, and horticultural vendors worldwide. Some of my favorite libraries are, Garden Picture Library (now at Getty), (Garden and Plant Picture Library), Oxford Scientific (also now at Getty),, and Science Faction (Getty). Of course there are millions of garden and plant photos in hundreds of stock libraries. For fast searches and low budget projects those libraries are great resources, but the images are sometimes poor quality, difficult to find due to incomplete keywording, and, even in major libraries, often misidentified or not identified at all. In these searches, my long experience in horticulture is really valuable.

I have worked as both as staff and freelance. Being on staff in the garden book group at Meredith was busy and filled with garden images. But when I became a freelance researcher, new areas opened to me. Beyond the garden, I have found travel and tourism photos, wonderful places that I’d like to go see. I’ve searched for photos of disasters, and roller coasters, and snowstorms. Recently I worked for a major online content provider in their business and industry area finding photos of international trade, metallurgy, medical offices, public education, biotechnology, pet stores and more. The pleasure is the same, the aha! when I find the right image for the story.

I really love the search. One of my favorites was to find a specific very tiny insect on a specific kind of plant, that insect on that plant and no other. It seemed futile, until, after days on the internet, I discovered the photo on Flickr. When I finally found the photographer, he was 11 years old. He was fascinated with insects and macro photography. He’d just been given a new lens for his beloved camera. The shot I needed was one of his experiments in the backyard. We sent the contracts, his dad reviewed the terms with him, and we got the shot. We were happy and he was thrilled. He was a paid photographer before junior high!

Little girl, MNStudios/
Little girl, MNStudios/

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  • Lovely article, Susan. It’s nice to know what goes on over on the other side of the project. I think we’ve worked together over the years on photo projects. Good to have your insight.

  • Michael Masterson says:

    The story of the budding young stock photographer is delightful. I wonder how many other kids his age have licensed imagery? Thanks for sharing this, Susan.