Platanus x acerifolia, London plane. Highland Park, Rochester, New York, 2020. Photographs by Stanley Greenberg.

Much of Brooklyn-based photographer Stanley Greenberg’s work explores infrastructure—and as a lifelong New Yorker (and onetime city parks-department employee), he knows that parks are urban infrastructure as vital as any aqueduct or reservoir. Greenberg’s recent book, Olmsted Trees, documents his hunt for trees surviving from Olmsted’s time in parks from New York and Boston to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Louisville, Kentucky. In a recent conversation, Greenberg reflected on the sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes unsettling thoughts trees provoke about time and the nature of change. His remarks here are edited and condensed.

I’m in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park almost every day. A few years ago I learned that the Prospect Park Alliance had surveyed all the trees in the park, and I realized that I could use it to find the largest and, probably, the oldest trees. With some help from parks staff and an old guidebook, I learned that some of them dated from Olmsted’s time. I spent a few days photographing in the park, and then in Olmsted’s Chicago parks. Olmsted always said he was designing his parks for how they would look one hundred years from now, and I wondered what the hundred-year-old trees looked like. And that made we wonder if we’re thinking enough about one hundred years from our own time. I also realized that Olmsted’s two hundredth birthday was coming soon. I decided to try to visit every Olmsted park where he had selected all the plantings. The pandemic slowed my work, but most parks were relatively easy to get to from New York. After many rejections I found a publisher, and my editor wanted a timeline of all the parks in the book, and when the trees were planted. In many parks there were some records, or historical surveys had been done, or arborists showed me their best candidates. I also made educated guesses based on old guidebooks and relative tree sizes. The Arboretum was the only place that had detailed planting records. But as for the timeline, it was almost impossible—because, when is a park finished? Even as far as Olmsted was concerned, he’d work for a few years, and there were probably ten or twenty years of planting to do. So, who’s to say when a park is “done”?

This is the first project I’ve done that’s been just about “nature.” Much of New York’s water supply, which I’ve photographed extensively, is in somewhat-altered nature. And Olmsted’s parks, of course, are mostly constructed (though there were places where he refused to touch what was there). I’m out in nature often, but tend not to photograph when I’m there. This project has shown me that there are things I want to photograph in that world, and has shifted my work in a new direction.

Fraxinus americana, white ash. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY 2021.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, European beech. Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Massachusetts, 2021.
Quercus rubra, northern red oak. Downing Park, Newburgh, New York, 2020.
Maclura pomifera, Osage orange. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, 2021.
Ulmus minor, English elm. Central Park, New York, New York, 2021.
Fagus sylvatica, European beech. Jamaica Pond, Boston, Massachusetts, 2020.

Stanley Greenberg is a photographer based in Brooklyn. The author of eight books, he exhibits his work around the world, and is the recipient of many awards, including the Guggenheim fellowship and an NSF Antarctic residency.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

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