Eye-opening views, embedded in the landscape

“The Park No. 11.”   © Lauren Henkin | Image courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery, New York
“The Park No. 11.” © Lauren Henkin | Image courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery, New York

BY NORMAN BORDEN  |  Ah, wilderness. For many New Yorkers and visitors, Central Park is their breath of fresh air: the essence of Mother Nature, autumn leaves, sledding and snowmen, the miracle of spring, summer fun, running and biking — a great, albeit temporary, escape from noise, pollution and crowded sidewalks.

Central Park has its own unique physical and spiritual attractions, and generations of photographers have long-recognized them — from iconic names like Papageorge, Meyerowitz, Davidson and Friedlander to the growing hordes of camera-toting visitors. In fact, in 2013, Instagram ranked Central Park as the seventh most-photographed place in the world.

Lauren Henkin’s lens sees Central Park anew

Lauren Henkin’s photographic discovery of the Park began on a beautiful day in 2009 when she took a walk there while visiting from Portland, Oregon. An accomplished landscape photographer, Henkin explains, “I just wanted to be in the Park on that day and be open to a new way of seeing; I had no intention of doing a project.”

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Back in Oregon, Henkin spent months looking at her pictures and thinking about what she could say about Central Park that would offer a different perspective than what the other photographers had done. Finally, two pictures in particular “spoke” to her and let her view the park through, as she puts it, “the right pair of lenses.”

“The Park No. 1.”
“The Park No. 1.”

Henkin says, “Situations began to present themselves to me such as people climbing rock formations as if they were in the Southwest, or a woman in a rowboat looking completely uncomfortable while trying to experience nature. I saw real moments of people embedded in the landscape and found this very powerful. I saw the opportunity to incorporate the landscape as a major structural component and show how people engage it instead of just honing in on the people or the trees as Papageorge, Davidson and Friedlander had done.”

Henkin decided she wanted to show what makes people wake up on a Saturday morning and tell themselves, “I want to spend the day in the park.” She spent the next two summers shooting in the Park and then moved to New York in 2012 to work on the project full-time. She explains, “By living here, I was able to devote six hours a day looking for things to make the project come together.”

Her search took her from the southern end that’s framed by midtown New York’s skyscrapers to the Sheep Meadow’s sunbathers and then further north to the park’s heavily wooded, secluded areas. Her aim was to show us what we might overlook if a photograph wasn’t making us aware of it.

“The Park No. 4.”
“The Park No. 4.”

One example from the exhibition (now at the Foley Gallery) is “The Park No. 8,” which shows a woman in a print dress lying in the shade on a tablecloth with a tacky potted plants pattern. Her legs are raised and resting on a tree trunk, her hands cupped over her eyes. You wonder how relaxed she must feel, you understand what made her come to the Park that day and you see how she’s engaged with the landscape.

I also liked the series of sunbathers in a variety of positions, some with arms or legs splayed out. A few of them must have felt a sudden urge to plop down on the grass, because there’s no towel or blanket underneath them. Although there is a casualness to these pictures, some have an intimacy that feels a bit voyeuristic. The artist says this is the first time she photographed people for a project, and reveals that “It became a turning point in the way I work.”

In “The Park No. 4,” Henkin combines landscape with people and the architecture of 57th St. She says, “We see the Essex House sign in the background and the tall new One 57 building that will really change the southern edge. This picture says so much about the whole project. It’s about scale, it’s how people use the park; it’s about a really intimate moment, with two people lying on the rocks holding hands. To me, it says what the Park is now and how it’s going to change with the building being constructed.”

“The Park” includes three 38 x 30.5 inch silver gelatin prints of London Plane tree trunks that seem entirely out of place, but that’s precisely the artist’s point. As the largest prints in the show, Henkin makes us stop and notice these trees and their anthropomorphic qualities.  When I looked at “The Park No. 11,” I thought I saw Yoda from “Star Wars” staring back at me, but that was my take. On my next visit to Central Park, I plan to look for other London Plane trees that speak to me.

As shows go, “The Park” is eye-opening. Henkin shows us a Central Park that we may have seen before but really didn’t notice. The majestic scale, the rocks and the rock climbers, the boaters and the sunbathers, the hidden beauty — the great escape available to all of us.

“The Park No. 8.”
“The Park No. 8.”

Norman Borden is a New York-based writer and photographer. The author of more than 100 reviews for NYPhotoReview.com and a member of Soho Photo Gallery and ASMP, he currently has two images in the juried show, “Hue,” at the Darkroom Gallery, Essex Junction, VT. For more info on Borden, visit normanbordenphoto.com.