New York
1982 - 1992
Photographs by Brian Rose
A project of exploration through the natural park lands of the city. New York as it was, is, and may yet become again.

New York primeval

My photographs of the natural landscape of New York City were completed over a ten year period in three parts commissioned by several organizations. Despite the cobbling together of funding and multiple sponsorship, I have always considered this work among my most personal.

Moving away from the man-made structures of the urban landscape, which I had become accustomed to photographing, I found pictures in the brambles, marshes, and forested tracts of the city park system. This work informed and influenced the way I photographed the Iron Curtain landscape, a project begun during the same period of time. After being exhibited in various venues, the negatives and prints have remained unseen in my archive.

In late September 2009, I discovered that Joel Meyerowitz had recently published a book, Legacy, based on three years of photographing much of the same topography as my work done 20 years ago. The photographs, as one would expect from Meyerowitz, are beautiful, as is the book.

Rather than present a geographical tour of New York's natural park areas, as Meyerowitz's book does, I have put together several series of images that follow loose thematic or formal threads through the woods and thickets, as it were. The way through can be open or barred, soft or thorny, patterned or a random profusion. It is often a tough unpicturesque nature that prevails--if it had a personality--disdainful of well ordered vistas and the idealized sublime. For a number of years in the 1980s it was my secret garden hidden in the heart of New York.


Here is the sequence of commissions and exhibitions:

In 1982, after completing a photo-documentation the Lower East Side of Manhattan--my first extended project--I began taking pictures in Central Park. At first, I worked on my own initiative, but eventually did photographs for Betsy Barlow (Rodgers) the director of the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. The color view camera photos I made of the park were exhibited in the Dairy located in Central Park.

Subsequently, the NYC Parks Department invited me and photographer J.S. Cartier to make pictures of natural park areas around the city. We worked independently, traveling to far flung, often little visited, parks in the five boroughs. The result was an exhibition, the Rural Landscape of New York, at the Urban Center Gallery and the Arsenal Gallery in Central Park. Later the show traveled to the Prospect Park Environmental Center, the Bronx Museum, and Fordham University Library.

As a result of that work, I was contacted by John Muir, director of the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, and was commissioned to photograph the Trail of the Waters, following the course of water emanating from a rocky outcrop through a series of ponds, creeks, and marshes, ending in the Prospect Park lake. That work was shown in the Tennis House in the park in 1995.

Trail of the Waters: Photographer's Statement

A number of years ago I completed a photo documentation of natural park areas in New York City. These areas, found in every borough of the city, are surprisingly extensive, and exist to some extent because of neglect. Except for walking trails, these forests and wetlands remain undeveloped as urban parks. I photographed these wild places as an unruly tangle of nature and encroaching city.

Photographing a park like Prospect Park is different than photographing a patch of nature left to itself in some corner of the city or suburbs. It is a carefully designed environment as much a part of the city as the streets and buildings that surround it. And although one can be fooled momentarily into believing it to be a natural place, one remains aware of its essential artificiality.

Sometimes, as a photographer, I played to the park's tromp l'oeil effect, for instance, depicting the creek running through The Ravine as if were really somewhere upstate. Other times, I framed the view as it might have appeared on Olmsted's drawing board as in the two pictures of the iron bridge linking the Lullwater and the Lake. In other photographs, I have worked against the grain of the landscape, intentionally seeking slightly off balanced compositions, or in some cases, views of the landscape in which nature seems to have run amok upon the armature of Olmsted's design. And indeed, that is the case in parts of Prospect Park.

As I photographed the Trail of the Waters I found it helpful to think of each segment of the water's journey as passing through a sort of room. Each room is a miniature landscape which presents itself in an intentionally readable way. Had Olmsted been Walt Disney, the "best views" of these landscapes might have been designated as official photography spots. And in that sense these landscapes can be "consumed" in the contemporary late 20th century way of putting things.

However, Olmsted's vision remains deeply resonant in a decidedly non 20th century way. It is to his everlasting credit that these landscapes, despite their romantic Arcadian values, transcend passing fashion, and continue to inspire us today.