by Lou Mancinelli and Len Lear
Rob Cardillo, 60, of Ambler, 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.
In 2007, Temple University Press published a beautifully illustrated 192-page Guide to the Gardens of the Philadelphia Region, by Adam Levine and Cardillo which is available at most bookstores and on the Internet.
Last year “Private Edens” (2013, Gibbs Smith), a book illustrated by Cardillo ‘s photography, was published. Recent magazine covers by Rob include his first for Country Gardens, which he calls “a long-awaited honor.” The magazine’s spring issue also features three stories of his. And the folks at The American Horticulture Society were fond enough of his ‘Sapphire Blue’ Eryngium image to create a striking cover of it. Also, the 2014 Burpee and Cook’s Garden catalogs should be showing up in your mailbox by now with Rob’s photos.
“And our long-time publisher, Storey Publishing, approached Nancy Ondra and me with the idea of a book featuring small gardens based on five different perennials,” he told us last week. “After a year of writing, a year of photography and a year of production, “Five-Plant Gardens” is finally hitting the shelves and is currently #1 in the perennial category on Amazon.com. Stems, leaves and flower heads cut from Nan’s gardens were brought indoors, arranged on a plexiglass stage and beautifully lit both front and back.”
“Deep in the Weeds,” another collection of Cardillo ‘s photographs, was exhibited at the Morris Arboretum beginning last March and continuing for several months. 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. 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 a 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 31 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.
For more information, visit www.robcardillo.com.