by Lou Mancinelli
The Cardillo Quarry is a fossil field located in the Chama Basin in north-central New Mexico that contains dinosaur bones more than 200 million years old, and named after area photographer Rob Cardillo.
Cardillo is an award-winning horticulture photographer as well as an author. His work appears regularly in books, advertisements and magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Country Living and has appeared in the New York Times. His clients have also included Fairmount Park, Burpee Seeds and Longwood Gardens, among many others.
“Deep in the Weeds,” a collection of Cardillo’s recent photographs, is about to be exhibited at the Morris Arboretum. An opening ceremony is scheduled for Sunday, March 17, 1 to 3 p.m., in the Upper Gallery in the Widener Visitor Center at the Arboretum at 100 E. Northwestern Ave. Exhibits in the Upper Gallery at the Widener Visitor Center typically run for one year.
“It’s an improvised type of photography,” said Cardillo, 60, an Ambler resident.
There’s a jazz ethos in Cardillo’s work. The idea of uncertainty of outcome, of arranging order from seemingly disorganized chaotic spaces, as from a patch of wild plants, is what he seeks to express, expand upon and investigate.
When Cardillo takes a photograph, he is unsure what will be illustrated in the final product. He shoots into the sun (supposedly a photographic no-no), which produces “a painterly” effect.
Things “start to open up once you exercise them with a camera.” It’s like the camera does the mediation for you; like it reveals new patterns and connections between plants, leaves, seed pods and stem hairs. It’s as if where the plant ends and the space around it begins blends into one organic unit.
Cardillo is interested in showing plant life in a way that it has not been seen before. He shoots at sunup and sundown when the light is cool and dim, in moments and in places “where you come across a lot of serendipity.” He looks for a more naturalistic style of gardening than those precisely arranged and manicured.
Serendipity, in fact, is how Cardillo stumbled upon his contribution to the field of paleontology. It happened at his first job after graduating from Penn State University (PSU) in 1976 with a degree in biology. That’s when he worked at the Carnegie Mellon Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
“It was like a childhood dream of working with dinosaur bones,” he said.
On his first day on the job, he unpacked bones from dusty boxes in a basement and worked on assembling the skeletal rib cage of a mastodon. He used epoxy glue to connect the bones. Later, on a field trip to New Mexico, he went looking for shade, tripped and discovered the 200 million-year-old fossil field.
But around 1970 when grant money started to fade, so did his job at the museum. That’s when his uncle offered him a job in commercial photography shooting weddings. It didn’t work out.
Around 1970, Cardillo moved to Philadelphia to be with his then-girlfriend, Sue Leary, now his wife of 30 years, whom he’d met at PSU. He started work at the Academy of Natural Sciences as the herbarium technician. Within a few years he became director of visual resources for ornithology. That position led him to develop the technical aspects of photography.
In 1988 he began his work with Organic Gardening Magazine, located near Allentown. He started as a photo editor and stayed with the magazine for 10 years. It launched his writing and photography career, one in which he’s been awarded golden and silver awards by the Garden Writers Association. In 1999 he founded Rob Cardillo Photography.
Cardillo was raised in Pittsburgh. His mother was a librarian, and his father is a pianist who performed with jazz greats like Mel Tormé and Al Hirt. As a kid, Cardillo was fascinated by the dinosaur fossils he saw in the Carnegie museum, as well as by the gardens in his neighborhood that were filled with unfamiliar zucchinis and peppers.
It’s this sort of fascination that one sees in his “Deep in the Weeds” exhibit and other Cardillo photos. There is something beautiful and deep, captured by an eye that is both trained and intuitive.
His current exhibition features 30 photos. In them Cardillo has revealed details of everyday plants that seem as mysterious as the universe, yet as simple as an egg. A photo of a simple patch of laurel looks like swallows espied just below the filmy surface of a pond, but one knows it is a plant. The photo is suggestive, almost transcendent.
In addition to the “Deep in the Weeds” exhibition, this month “Private Edens” (2013, Gibbs Smith), a book illustrated by Cardillo’s photography, was published.
For more information, visit www.RobCardillo.com. Or for more information about the “Deep in the Weeds” exhibit, visit www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/events_arts_culture.shtml.