The New York Botanical Garden’s Landscape Design Alumni enjoyed a very enriching and pleasant day recently, marked by two lectures.
It was a double feature!
And with that as the gold standard, she offered her tips and techniques about how best to photograph gardens- particularly our own garden designs.
I brought my “Homegrown Long Island” book photographer, Jennifer Calais Smith, to the talk. While Jennifer is a professional photographer – not like the rest of us who are garden designers first, I thought she’d enjoy the photography discussion and maybe even learn something J especially because Betsy is so good with such a body of garden work to share, having produced a library shelf’s worth of breathtaking garden books.
Instructor and author, Magda Salvesen, whose latest book is “Exploring Gardens and Green Spaces From Connecticut to the Delaware Valley,” hosted the afternoon garden talk.
Betsy Pinover Schiff is a soft-spoken, dedicated and confident artist.
She and I know each other from the year-long botanic garden project to produce the annual photographic wall calendar. Every month featured an iconic seasonal image that helped tell the story of the garden.
Her many visits to the garden to capture just the right mood and photo attest to the disciplined approach to her art that helps make it so special – and personal.
Betsy had copies of her books on display for the group to peruse.
Accompanied by the PowerPoint presentation that was naturally chock a block with garden photos,
Betsy launched her talk with a bit of her background, saying photography is in fact, her third career.
Previously, she worked as head of a school’s foreign language department and doing the public relations at Sotheby’s and the New York Public Library – which is where she first met Gregory Long, president of NYBG, where he then worked as the Director of Development
She explained it was at Sotheby’s where she learned invaluable and enduring art lessons, including composition and light.
“Looking, looking, looking” is how she remembers learning the art of good garden photography.
“Composition is a question of one’s eye. What to include or not.”
She suggested we do a lot of looking and training of the eye by going to the library or bookstore to view fine art and photographs. “Ask why you like the photo.” She said.
The combination of her French language skills and art history, along with the chance to discover the art all around her, provided a trajectory art lesson that was not lost on her for a second. She told how she’d make certain to take advantage of Sotheby’s lunchtime talks with the experts about how to buy and sell at auction. She recounted how lucky she was to see what was on exhibit to be auctioned. The next day, with the catalog firmly in hand, she could study the art. It was her way of learning. “There were art opportunities everywhere,” she recalled.
The latest NYC Garden book is a follow up of sorts, to her 1999 book "Garden in the City: New York in Bloom" which was the first book about public and private New York gardens, according to Betsy. Text by Mary Jane Pool and Foreword by David Rockefeller it featured 120 gardens. She worked with Paul Gottleib, former editor with House & Gardens for 25 years and he excitedly provided entrée to gardeners for the Gardens in the City: NY in Bloom book. “I knew gardens were hot and I could had total confidence I could market the book. I had less confidence then about my emerging photography!” she confided.
Success was hers in the end. In fact, Hirmer Verlag, the German publishers of her new book, were captivated by her first foray and approached her for the NYC Gardens book. The publisher even secured the Austrian-based text author, Veronika Hofer.
Was she interested?
She explained how she “did it all” for this book – from identifying the gardeners and their gardens to securing permission and schedule access to photograph the gardens. No small feat.
Needing spring and summer images in the gardens, she had a mere three months to go from ‘what gardens?” to finished photos.
Click, Click, Click.
Time was of the essence.
Advice like this could be applied to most anything worth having.
Here, Betsy repeated how critical it is in photography to confront the question constantly: “What’s your goal?”
She went on to describe her three key goals for this book.
She knew she had to set her guidelines for this book, particularly as the publisher wasn’t local. And the audience was primarily European. “I wanted the book to scream, New York!”
The book had to have a “sense of place” so that even if a reader has never been to Gotham, the photo narrative will tell him where he is. That means composing photos that would showcase the gardens with New York landmarks. The trick was to do it ever so artfully so that it didn’t end up as NY City postcards ‘cut and pasted’ next to the garden and parks!
She said there is not a shot in the entire book that didn’t have purpose. So there.
For example, one homeowner (The Lauders) love roses. Their 4,000 square foot terrace includes several garden “rooms” but the artist in Betsy was compelled to showcase a photo narrative that spoke to the homeowner’s passion. She wanted to evoke that personal, unique characteristic – to share the homeowner’s sensibility and the thing they cared about. Betsy showed us images of the roses reflected in the window of the “rose garden.”
In much the same way, she made a great effort to capture the magic that characterizes Lynden Miller’s public garden perennial borders. Lynden is my idol, by the way J
Those who’ve had the pleasure and privilege to bask in the glory of Lynden’s sensual garden designs, you know the challenges Betsy faced in attempting to capture the these gardens. Lynden was originally a painter. Not surprisingly, she possesses an otherworldly ability to weave color, hue, shadow, texture – and yes – utility and art – into a garden tapestry that’s always astonishing – just like any fine art rendering.
Visit Lynden’s garden designs – NYBG, Battery Park City, Red Hook, Central Park – in any season – and you will experience a seminal connection to nature and art. Later Magda cited Lynden’s “codes of seclusion” (sense of mystery walking through the garden designs) and strong palette in every season.”
Is it obvious we LOVE Lynden?!
To better capture the essence of this garden design pallet, Betsy said she took “close-ups” to show depth and plant variety highlighted in the “Magic Miller” beds.
There were plenty of oohs and ahhs and also lots of questions about these familiar-to-the-members garden.
When asked how she got the angle for the photo, Betsy revealed she usually has a stepladder with her to get the perfect perspective.
“Planting designs convey a lot,” said Betsy. “That’s why I take shots from above to show what it’s like for homeowners.” She takes high and low shots to show Bluestone paving, for instance, or statues – to show how they inform the garden paths and the garden beds.
She said she spends time walking the gardens to best determine if she should do more close ups or longer shots to best capture the angle or perspective in order to fulfill her stated goal or objective.
It all about Light, Perspective, Composition. (It’s that pesky, pertinent “goal thing.”)
“So much of composition has to do with ‘exclusion’ she explained.
And further, “Light and quality of light is so much of what photography is all about…”
Light is what allows for garden “mood.”
Saturation of color says one thing. Shadow says another that can communicate other garden “ideas.”
Sometimes it’s best to combine light and lack of light.
Clouds can create “ceilings.”
And night says something else entirely. (Not as part of this talk but another author/photographer I worked with in the garden was Linda Rutenberg, “The Garden at Night: Private Views of Public Edens” produces the rare experience of a night in the botanical or public garden.
Light variances were perhaps shown best by a Topher Delaney garden design to appreciative gasps. http://www.tdelaney.com/
It is indeed very special. There is a wall of mirrors with vines growing up on the lattice fronting the mirrors. Betsy had the challenge to photograph this “hall of mirrors” and not seeing herself reflected 20x!
She also pointed out the inspiring Braille circles of poems imbedded in the sparse, clean patio garden. (She also offered a funny aside about photographing them.)
Be sure to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art roof garden photos – made all the more astonishing when you learn she had the “luxury of moments” to shoot the seven images that reflect the dynamic energy of Jeff Koons’ art and Central Park. “I wanted to take the shot at an angle to show the art and the context of the Park as background.”
The Rockefeller Center and the Ken Smith-designed MoMA roof garden photos are worth the price of the book alone. No one is allowed on the gardens and Betsy used her plucky New York artistic charm to capture a peak and a view of these inspiring gardens. The gardens may be located in the heavens but you and me can’t beg the key from St. Peter – or the gardener. Betsy did it for us.
Betsy added a few of her tips:
She never “crops” photos.
She uses film.
She uses digital for some landscape architecture for web sites or marketing work.
Magda Salvesen is too perfect in so many ways. The online chatter among the alumni is that she is hands-down one of the most favorite and influential instructors at NYBG.
She was a stimulating speaker with great content and advice. And that is always welcome after a longish morning – and lunch.
And her British accent is so charming and her sense of humor so acute, you don’t want to miss a nuance.
Magda skibbled through existing public parks and spent good time talking about the possibility of new parks.
“There is much contaminated land in New York,” she said, and given the present administration’s (Bloomberg) advocacy of green space of all kinds – from median spaces to pocket parks, and community gardens -- she believes we could see a renaissance in producing new parks. Maybe not as sexy as the High Line Park. But much-needed, new parks, nestling nicely in heretofore blighted urban areas.
“The Parks Department needs to encourage landscape designers to part of the process.” Magda said. “Parks is not about just picking up litter.” The Parks staff should and needs to be about the Horticulture.”
Too many botanic and public gardens are too much about the public program (i.e. entertainment) according to Magda. “Ornamentation becomes the lesser of priorities.”
She likes the public/private scenario as bested by New York’s Central Park success.
She also recommends the Parks Departments work more closely, embracing landscape designers as part of the process.
The mayor of Newark recognized the longstanding and inherent value of the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival in Branchburg Park.
The Park was originally designed by the firm of John Bogart and Nathan F. Barrett in a romantic style. Barrett is my favorite. I have written about him frequently and will post a blog dedicated to him, I think. He designed so many of the train stations in New Jersey, by and large due to not only his talent, but his relationship to George Pullman, inventor of the railroad sleeping car: The Pullman. Pullman’s favorite estate, Castle Rest, was located in Elberon, NJ. He also designed many residential gardens. I was elated to learn of one his extant gardens in Rumson, in the Garden State, while on a recent garden tour in the Two Rivers area. I was further gobsmacked to learn one of my most favorite garden design clients once lived there, and helped bring the garden back to its full grandeur, not surprisingly, as she loves all things beautiful and artful…
I shared my researched Barrett content and photo material with Arthur Melville Pearson who in turn, was helping the Barrett chapter contributors. The request went out for information to be used as part of the first book to document the biographies and work of American landscape designers and architects: “Pioneers of American Landscape Design.”
The Pioneer book chapter on Barrett documents his work for the planned town of Pullman, Ohio.
Interestingly, remember too, that research done at that time was pre-internet and pre-Google! Somehow, through passion and networking, contacts and links were made. I was honored to send my painstaking research work to Mr. Pearson.
By the way, the work of Charles A. Birnbaum is nothing short of extraordinary. Check out the fascinating initiative driven by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
The Branchburg park design was completed five years after Barrett’s design, by the Olmstead design firm.
The post-industrial Ruhr Valley garden and park design has infused the High Line Park landscape design, as well as other European and American parks, Magda explained.
When describing the contaminated landscapes, “It used to be ‘Take it away’” said Magda. But increasingly, she is hearing, “Splendid sites. And “what have we done to nature?”
Regardless, she says it is our responsibility to clearly use and refurbish precious open spaces. She showcased a number of very successful and artfully designed public spaces – particularly waterfronts.
The Hudson River Waterfront 18-miles of public walks run from Newport, NJ, Hoboken, - and provide unparalled views of the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty.
There is a continuous, thematic line connecting the parks, yet each has their own style using industrial artifacts and local style.
She joked that she sees use of rocks and berms here, there and everywhere! However, she noted that berms do block urban noise, as they have successfully demonstrated in Chelsea as part of the Hudson River Park in NYC.
Magda concluded the garden talk with her list of top trends, followed by a lively Q&A.
Public/Private Alliances - cooperatives to build and maintain parks and public spaces
Car Parking – Magda cited Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township and their brilliant parking solution that serves as a green introduction to the arboretum.
Memorial Gardens – Discussed the annual outpouring of these special gardens… “Every era has its wars, disasters and we must have a public display and place to mourn,” Magda said. Citing Princeton’s September 11th tastefully designed garden memorial, British Memorial Garden in Manhattan, Union City Memorial for victims of September 11th. “These gardens tranquility leads to rumination and thoughts.“
Pier or Waterfront Gardens
Lighting of public parks – “We have extended ideas about hours of access and lights are an extremely urban concept that allows us to enjoy our parks anytime – for sports, walking and enjoyment. Even if it’s night – lighting makes it possible.”
Green Roofs – everywhere from Chicago leadership to Queens, NY to Lincoln Center
Native plants – showed Mt. Cuba garden as a “most spectacular” example use of native plants
were shown as models. Cedar Hill was designed by Joseph Weidenmann who turned the wet areas at the Cemetery’s entrance into a park, leading visitors through its more than 250 acres. I would add the 400 acres of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (1863) http://www.thewoodlawncemetery.org/
and Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY (1838) as other amazing examples of a cultural destination and horticultural wonder place to visit. http://www.green-wood.com/
According to Green-Wood’s website, by 1860 it rivaled Niagara Falls as America’s premiere tourist attraction!
Magda pointed out the older, 19th Century Cemeteries most often have very good trees for us to admire. These special places have sculpture, artwork, lawns, wildlife and rural landscape designs – one of the first to utilize the graveyard design that today rivals arboretums. Here families loved ones and garden lovers can enjoy picnics, moonlight walks, bird watching. Many cemeteries offer guided tours as the two models do, offering history, art, culture and horticultural natural beauty. Laurel Hill’s nearly 80 acres is one of the few cemetery’s to have been designated a National Historic Landmark. Magda suggests that as a society we will come to appreciate and use graveyards even more due to lack of space issues. I can add that in my travels – to Paris and Cuba, in particular, the cemeteries are indeed a place to meet family and friends. In Havana, we had a memorable bicycle tour throughout the cemetery. We were amazed at the spectacular statuary, use of plants, and the sense of loving care of this place as a garden destination to be enjoyed. I couldn’t help but think there was such a sense of life that permeated what many Americans only think of as a final resting place, only visited after the funeral.
Garden History and Historic Gardens interest
New Lawn Technologies
Food and the Garden – organic, food is more a part of gardening. Food safety.
Artists in the Designed Landscape
Broader interpretations of House and Garden and Estates
Vertical gardens – she doesn’t think they work. “Too much maintenance. The ones outside of buildings ‘don’t work’ according to Magda.