Let award-winning photographer Joel Meyerowitz’s new book, Legacy , be your guide. He was asked several years earlier by Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to conduct a photographic survey of the city’s parks, a task that hadn’t been done since the 1930s as part of FDR’s WPA program.
He began by photographing people in the most populated parts of the parks, trying to take account of the city’s “assets”--things like its swimming pools, ball fields and playgrounds. However, he soon found himself drawn to the off-road parts of the parks, and it was in Queens’ Forest Park that Meyerowitz decided he would proceed by photographing the wild, untamed side of the parks.
Meyorowitz said that parks are, for the most part, a product of managed nature. People cut the grass and clean up the litter. He wanted to show people that the parts of the park where things were allowed to fall and rot, where infestations of creatures were unfettered, could be beautiful as well.
“The density of nature becomes rude density because it makes no concession to the visitor. There’s no path through it that makes it an easy stroll,” said Meyerowitz.
Over the next three years, he captured on film scenes from 60 of the city’s more than 800 parks in all four seasons, covering an astonishing 29,000 acres of parkland.
Gaze upon the overgrown shrubs, fallen trees and decaying plant growth and you will hardly believe you are still inside NYC.
So just how did Meyerowitz decide what to photograph out of the tens of thousands of acres’ parkland that he explored?
“It became for me the way of photographing, when I had the experience that I was suddenly back in nature, without necessarily seeing the picture in my eye, but feeling the picture by my skin,” he said.
Meyerowitz explained that there is an invisible line where the man-made world ends and the natural one begins. He knew he had crossed it when he sensed subtle differences such as the scent of mold and earth and he felt the cool of the forest. These were the moments he had to capture.
He found favorite spots in each of the five boroughs, but his favorite experience was canoeing on the Bronx River.
“To be able to get in a canoe in the city and go between waterfalls, go through the Botanical Gardens, Bronx Zoo, hear the animals roaring in the Bronx Zoo while you’re in the canoe and hoping they don’t get loose, that to me is truly a remarkable experience,” said Meyerowitz.
He actually grew up in the Bronx, playing many a game along the river, but he was elated to find that the Bronx River was still the Bronx River and that the parks he played in as a child had remained virtually unchanged.
Legacy is fittingly named because it chronicles the raw and untamed beauty that will be left for future generations.
“The fact that some vestiges of it remain inside the density of the city was of pure wonder for me,” said Meyerowitz. “I think this book is an expression of the wonder that I was able to feel when, as an adult, I crossed the line and discovered a piece of it that was still there, intact in some way.”