For many visitors to the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, a big part of the experience is the grandeur of its trees, some 30,000 of them in collections, forests and the grand allée of tulip trees. Now, with the recent publication of Magnificent Trees of The New York Botanical Garden, tree fanciers and nature and photography buffs can enjoy the peak beauty of some of the specimens.
The 272-page, 12-by-9-1/2-inch book features 240 color photographs by Larry Lederman of Chappaqua — some of them two-page spreads — accompanied by commentary and captions by Todd Forrest of Ridgefield, who is vice president for horticulture and living collections at NYBG.
The two men are currently promoting the book and began their rounds with an December appearance at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, which is selling the volume in its gift shop ($50).
Given place of honor in the book is a sweet gum tree, featured on the cover and described by Mr. Forrest, as “a phenomenal living creature, 90 feet tall and 88 feet wide.”
Mr. Lederman added, “I’m crazy about this tree… and I knew the moment when it was absolutely right, when it looked like a pastel painter’s palette.”
“One of the first questions people ask when they see the book is how many of the trees were destroyed by Superstorm Sandy,” said Mr. Forrest. “The answer is none, and thankfully very few were damaged. Unfortunately, our saucer magnolias took the brunt of the damage of the October 2011 snowstorm; they were really hammered. Thankfully, we have Larry’s pictures.” A member of the NYBG board of advisors, Mr. Lederman began taking pictures of trees on the grounds as a hobby more than a decade ago.
Established in 1891, and a National Historic Landmark, the New York Botanical Garden features a number of dramatic vistas created at over its 120 years and “visitors can’t help but be blown away by the trees,” said Mr. Forrest (and, yes, that is his real name and he takes the comments and repeated jokes about it in stride). “We wanted to get them photographed, become a guardian of their history.”
To create the book project, Mr. Forrest explained, “We had a number of professional photographers give us samples of their work, but none were quite right somehow; Larry’s photographs of the grounds were more evocative. Maybe it’s the passion he brings to the subject — he was a mergers and acquisitions attorney in a previous life and started taking pictures of trees because he loves them. We’ve used his pictures in calendars and other projects in the past, and realized he was the best person to do this project for us. The results speak for themselves.”
Mr. Lederman has always been drawn to trees; he began developing his techniques for photographing them when he decided to create a photo inventory of those on his Chappaqua property.
“My interest and passion for trees came first; the photographs came later. After a year, I felt too limited by my own property, and while I had been on the board of the garden, I had never really walked around it. I started walking around, really looking at the trees and then taking pictures; they are informed by my passion for them.
“I shoot slow, use a tripod; my technique evolved… It probably took me two, three years to figure out how to get the look I wanted,” he said. “ I am not interested in manipulating the photos; I want to capture the trees as others can see them as well. My decision is what is going to be in every frame.”
For him, it was looking at trees as sculpture and accentuating detail. “You notice you don’t see a lot of sky in my shots unless it’s a landscape; I like to emphasize particular features of each tree. In the shot of the flowering cherry tree, for example, the dark trunk and branch structure is off to the side, and the delicacy and color of the blossoms is what is in the forefront. I wanted to capture that moment that shows the power and cantilever of the branches, how its canopy demonstrates the abundance of spring.”
He adds that the best way to photograph trees is often from a distance: “That way you get a much better sense of proportion.”
Mr. Forrest created a list of trees he wanted for the project and Mr. Lederman spent years photographing them year-round. The book is organized by season; photo styles include portraits, abstracts and landscapes. The captions provide both common and scientific names and a brief description. Mr. Forrest also wrote about the history of the New York Botanical Garden, particularly as it relates to the trees, and at the back of the book is an essay by Mr. Lederman titled “Five Lessons” describing the photography process, his approach and the cameras used.
Mr. Forrest explained why recording the look of the botanical garden at various points is important. “In 1937, for example, the WPA did a survey of the trees on the property; the most common tree was the flowering dogwood. Since then, disease has laid waste to them in the forest, and the few remaining are treasures. In Larry’s view, they float, you don’t see the source, they have a pattern that is beautifully complex, which from a distance can be hard to distill; they become like wallpaper.”
He added, “The landscape shots capture the genius loci of place; when you’re there, it is easy to forget you are in New York City; all of the encroachments of the urban environment dissolve.” He also said that as much as humans like to direct things, “Nature makes many of the decisions, from planting of trees by squirrels to their destruction by disease and storms.”
Eighteen large-scale images from the book that celebrate the changing seasons are on view at the Arthur and Janet Ross Gallery at the New York Botanical Garden through April 14; smaller sizes are available in limited editions.
The New York Botanical Garden is at 2900 Southern Boulevard in The Bronx. For information or to purchase the book, visit www.nybg.org or call 718-817-8700, or check at the Aldrich Museum gift shop (203-438-4519).