More than 40 million people visit Central Park every year, and plenty of them take at least a selfie there—Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s elegant design and breathtaking juxtapositions of city and nature are eternal catnip for photographers. The Park has been a subject for artists ranging from Diane Arbus in her famously tense Child with Toy Hand Grenade from 1962 to Lee Friedlander’s more recent angular studies of scrims of trees and grass. And it continues to inspire another generation. Looking at their work answers the question, What’s the secret to taking a great picture of Central Park?
Use it as a backdrop
Brandon Stanton concentrates on the people in the Park. Stanton’s wildly popular blog (and now best-selling book) Humans of New York (aka HONY) finds subjects all over the city, but the Park is a regular hunting ground. It serves as a backdrop to his empathetic, straightforward portraits of solitary bench sitters and couples strolling snowy paths. At the heart of his project are the interviews he conducts. Reading Stanton’s conversations with his subjects is like opening wrapped presents—what’s going on beneath each human surface is always a surprise.
Treat it like the rest of the city
Lauren Henkin treats the Park like a street photographer might—her square-format black and white pictures, on view at Foley Gallery until June 8, soak up the gestures and vignettes of the city at leisure. Henkin began the project before she moved to New York but her understanding of the Park’s appeal has shifted with her time here. “Now, I live in New York, with an intimate understanding of the escape the Park provides—from noise, pollution, density, and looming skyscrapers which only occasionally permit a glimpse of the sky,” she writes. “I wanted to define that feeling when you wake up on a Saturday morning and think to yourself, I want to spend the day in the park. What is that complex range of emotions and activities that lead you to that feeling?”
Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s vision of Bethesda Fountain could have been taken from a rowboat on the Pond, but in fact he was on dry land, standing on the peninsula with his digital-backed large-format camera. His summery photo shows crowds lounging at the water’s edge, but like much of Liao’s work, the view is a slight fiction, made from multiple exposures digitally stitched together into a leafy tableau. The iconic site is an exception for Liao—more often he specializes in picturing lesser-known landmarks, from studies of The QueensWay, that borough’s answer to The High Line, to Brooklyn’s ornate but often empty Green-Wood Cemetery. Aperture is publishing a collection of his New York work this fall.
Focus on one section
Robert A. McCabe trained his camera on just one place—the Ramble, the 38-acre faux wilderness near 79th Street that includes winding paths and a cave. Recently out in paperback, his book of photos traces life in the little woods throughout the seasons, with fiery leaves framing the Dakota in fall and a group of picnickers on a boulder in early spring, making up a sort of portrait of a park-within-a-park.
Get above it
David Drebin’s Dreams of Central Park, 2012, looks north from high above the park—a lush green trapezoid surrounded by the pink glow of the city. Drebin took the exposure from the 57th floor of Carnegie Hall Tower, where a friend had an office. “I like to go places people have photographed before, and shoot them in a new way,” says Drebin.
The Park closes at 1 a.m., but long before that it’s transformed into a quieter, more mysterious place. Lynn Saville’s photographs of New York at night often show storefronts and doorways aglow under fluorescents and sodium lights, and her shots of Central Park after dark are no different. A single globe lamp burns in her view of Bethesda Terrace, a kind of false moon. Its warm glow illuminates a patch of ornate tile in the lower passage, contrasting the cold blue of the fountain beyond.
Pick a tree
In his recent book, Benjamin Swett’s study of city trees documents a set of public and private New York characters, some louder than others. There is a shy and lovely common pear in a Queens backyard and an American Elm that arches gracefully over the Harlem River Drive. His Central Park subjects are brasher—a Yoshino Cherry explodes in pale pink flowers. Like celebrities, trees soak up and reflect back the lives lived around them, Swett argues. “Just as trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and hold it for many years in their woody tissue, so do they sequester the shared experiences of the people who live alongside them,” he writes. “Trees also store memories through the associations they carry for the people who live alongside them and see them every day.”