Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.
Writer and photographer Benjamin Swett joined Wave Hill Horticultural Interpreter Charles Day to lead a packed “Berries, Bark and Trees Walk” this past Saturday, followed by a book-signing for his 2013 publication New York City of Trees. Here he talks more about his interests in documenting some of the longest living residents of New York City. Photographs from Swett’s acclaimed series are on view in Wave Hill House until March 27, 2016. New York City of Trees can also be purchased at The Shop at Wave Hill.
Danni Shen: You have spent most of your life in New York City. How has living in such a saturated urban metropolis effected your relationship to nature?
Benjamin Swett: I have always valued the way plants try to make a place for themselves in an environment that is basically designed to exclude them except in the most controlled way. What I have learned is how rare it is for any plant, whether planted intentionally or growing spontaneously, to reach maturity or even senescence, before somebody for unrelated reasons decides to cut it down.
DS: When you photograph trees, are there particular aspects of a tree you look at? In your book, you write about how “trees also store memories through the associations they carry for the people who live alongside them and see them every day.” How do you view a tree as a living entity, one that possesses its own energy and being in the world?
BS: I like to show the place where the trunk meets the ground, because that is the place where the general species meets the local neighborhood. If you think about a tree rooted in one spot for decades, and the number of people who pass under that tree every day in a particular neighborhood of the city, you can begin to imagine the number of associations that a tree will have in the neighborhood. Generally people aren’t aware of these associations until the tree is cut down. Then suddenly it is as if there is a gaping hole, not so much in the local infrastructure as in their hearts.
DS: You quote Eric Sanderson, Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who comments in the introduction to New York City of Trees that “New York is a city built atop a forest.” What is this history of New York in relationship to trees?
BS: It is just as Eric Sanderson says—and has reminded us in wonderful detail in his book Mannahatta. Human relationships to trees in New York City go back long before Henry Hudson explored the region in 1609, and they continue to this day. We have fewer trees than grew here then, and a much greater variety because of introductions from elsewhere, but trees continue to try to make a place for themselves here as they always have.
DS: Are trees declining or increasing in number in New York City?
BS: I’m not sure. I suspect that because of programs such as Mayor Bloomberg’s Million Trees program there may be a larger number of younger trees, but since no programs exist for protecting and caring for the older street and park trees, except in places like Central Park or Wave Hill, the overall tree loss is probably as high as ever.
DS: Are there trees around New York City that you have been particularly drawn to, or are personally significant to you?
BS: The ten trees in the photographs now hanging in Wave Hill House are all personally significant to me. I have photographed them many different times in many different types of weather. Each one carries a piece of my own life with it, many hours spent getting to know it and getting to know the place where it grows. They carry some of my strongest memories.
DS: Are there any trees at Wave Hill that you have photographed?
BS: In one way or another I have photographed most of the trees at Wave Hill!
DS: Is this a continuing project?
Pictured above, from the top:
Benjamin Swett, Cucumber Magnolia 59″. Private residence, Riverdale, in the Bronx. May 4, 2010. Archival pigment print, 32″ x 32″.
Benjamin Swett, Tree of Heaven, 30th Street at 11th Avenue, Manhattan May 28, 2002 (removed 2002). Archival pigment print, 44″ x 44″.
Benjamin Swett, Silver Linden 65.5″. Nethermead, Prospect Park, Brooklyn. October 15, 2009. Archival pigment print.
Benjamin Swett, American Elm 44″. Ridge Boulevard at 72nd Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. April 26, 2010. Archival pigment print, 44″ x 44″.