Joel Meyerowitz: Legacy—The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks

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Art Institute of Boston, Main Gallery, Lesley University, Boston, MA
Through April 30, 2011

By Kat Kiernan

Joel Meyerowitz spent his childhood playing cowboys and Indians and catching frogs along riverbanks until his mom called him home for supper. Such activities might suggest the marshlands of Louisiana or the woods of Oregon. Instead he lived in the Bronx, catching frogs in the Bronx River and playing cowboys with New York accents. It is this romanticized idea of childhood that Meyerowitz recalled when he accepted the commission by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to document the almost 9,000 acres of parkland that have been preserved in their natural state.

The 250 luscious color photographs that make up his book Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks exist as a historic collection, documenting the parklands for the first time since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program in the 1930s. A lot has happened to New York since that time; buildings have been erected, torn down, converted into other businesses, and most memorably, have fallen. In his book Aftermath Meyerowitz examined the drastic change to New York City after 9/11. Where in one moment a building stood, it became a cloud of dust, then rubble. With a large format camera, Meyerowitz took on the responsibility of photographing the manmade devastation and documenting the rapidly changing landscape as the city began to rebuild. Applying this same technique in Legacy, Meyerowitz once again assumes this responsibility. By preserving the New York City parklands, we allow for change—growth and overgrowth, natural rather than manmade destruction.

Many of these places seem truly wild as though they were photographed in the woods of New England when in fact they are pockets of wilderness within the expanse of New York City. The photographs take a different approach from the typical man versus nature, and show a coexistence where picnickers and yoga classes are able to experience the natural world. The diverse range of man’s impact on nature is spread throughout the book. In some images the city is the dominating landscape: overgrown weeds and ivy neglected in an alley, or a baseball field in the midst of brick buildings. Others have only hints of the city that encircles the parks, such as a chain link fence behind a thicket of shrubs. A few of the most compelling images are those where Meyerowitz has eliminated horizon lines by shooting into the density of the wilderness. This creates a feeling of having stepped through a back door in a New York City alleyway and into a Narnian universe.

Though the urban and the wild often appear to be opposites, these photographs mirror one another. About this relationship Meyerowitz says, “The chaos and density of the wilderness parks reflects on the chaos and density of the city.” Trees and skyscrapers both have long shadows at sundown, and fresh snow on power lines mimics snow on branches. The landscape changes with the pace of the seasons: in weather, in cycles of the sun, in new growth replacing the old. Meyerowitz returns repeatedly, almost compulsively, to document these changes. Frequently nature is thought of as a place untouched by human hand, but in the city’s parklands, evidence of the human hand exists everywhere in the dirt pathways.

The language of photography is violent. We shoot, take, or capture an image. These terms seem too aggressive for the placid photographs in Legacy. The term “making pictures” is more appropriate. Making implies a creative act, a collaboration with the subject, as opposed to taking something from them. This is an important distinction when talking about preservation. Meyerowitz is not taking from nature; he is making an experience with the parklands, in all seasons and conditions, just as the land itself is being preserved for future generations to have their own experiences.

The parks have a relationship to time that is best represented in photography, a medium which has its own unique relationship with time. The last images of the commissioned parklands series showed the wilderness of the 1930s—the landscape in which Meyerowitz grew up. The images in Legacy are also intended as documents, but it is his personal experience as a New York native and as a photographer exploring these parklands that is being shown. Though each photograph from the two commissions is an isolated moment, by exploring the same places over and over, the photographs offer a dialogue and show a progression of time through preserved moments. Meyerowitz began his commission with memories of a Bronx River childhood and left with evidence of new up-and-coming frog catchers.


Kat Kiernan will receive her BFA in photography from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in May 2011. She has exhibited her photographic narratives in Maine and Boston. Her writings have been published in numerous publications.

Fell out of bed feleing down. This has brightened my day!
Posted by: Rosabel    On: Oct 22, 2011 7:38 am
Brilliant interpretation! - Great insight! You made us believe that is just what he had in mind.
Posted by: Dick & Beverly Kiernan    On: Apr 16, 2011 8:23 am
Beautifully written.
Posted by: Marybeth Troy    On: Apr 15, 2011 3:03 pm

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