Backstory: Poet's Walk

In 1993 (give or take a few years) I was walking through Central Park when I first saw Poet’s Walk (above).  I was brought up in the Bronx, and although I had lived in Manhattan for a decade, I had never seen this part of the park.  I didn’t know what it was called, so I called it Promenade and for years that was the name of the print.

At any rate, it was early winter.  At that time, Poet’s Walk (sometimes called Literary Walk) was paved.  On the day I first saw it I simply told myself that I would need to come back and photograph it when the weather was better.  I rarely photograph in harsh sunlight, at least for scenics, if I can help it.  It was just a place that I filed away as worth revisiting.

At that time I was younger and stronger and was shooting with a large metal 4 x 5 view camera.  It was a big deal to get out into the field with this thing.  You’d need to carry a bunch of film loaders (that you’d pre-load) and a changing bag, and a heavy-duty tripod, and I was using a spot light meter and three lenses.  This was a smaller version of the type of rig that Ansel Adams used in his prime until he moved to medium format.  He was asked what camera he was using and would say, the heaviest he could carry.

So one day, I look out the window of my apartment on East 83rd street – early in the morning – and there’s that feeling of gloom and the approach of a snow storm.  This is the type of weather I like to shoot in.  Someday people may go through my photographs and discover that most of them were shot either at night or during storms.  Maybe it was because I was born during the winter.  I don’t know, but during the summer I slow down and as my other photographer friends know, rarely feel like shooting.  But this was brisk and cold and I had my backpack filled with holders and the camera and I was out to the park as the sun was coming up.

That’s another factor.  I’m a morning person.  If I am on a night-shooting kick, then I’ll sleep during the day so I have the energy to shoot at night.

And I get out to Poet’s Walk, and walk around a bit looking for the best view, the best trees.  I’m the only one there.  Light hail is falling and bouncing on the pavement.  And as I setup I realize that the holders which contain the film are getting wet.  I’m not sure if it’s just the outside of the holders or if it’s getting through to the film.

I work quickly.  The good thing about using a view camera is that you carry a black cloth around with you that you put over your head so that you can see the ground glass on the back of the camera.  The view camera also has something called tilts and swings which allow you to get what I’d call a “looming” effect with objects in the foreground.  In this case the nearby bare trees.

I don’t like to go out of my way to force a composition to be quirky.  I see this as a traditional picture – bottom third is going to be the walkway, top two thirds the trees and sky.  The image is going to be centered.  This is usually considered boring and not dynamic – but so be it.  I don’t see any other way to shoot it.

The hail is bouncing off the black cloth on my head.  I have thin gloves on, but my hands still seem to be sticking to the tripod.  I didn’t think it would be as cold as it was and I’m underdressed.  I want to go home.

As I say – the walk is empty.  I don’t like to waste shots with the view camera.  You have to develop each negative sheet separately and it’s a pain.  The shot is missing something, but I don’t know what.  So I stand there waiting and shivering.  After about five minutes, a couple with umbrellas walk towards from behind and cross into the scene.  I watch them walking towards the horizon and realize that if I let them go far enough away, they’ll be perfect to give stature to the trees.  In other words, without these small figures in the shot, you don’t have a sense of the looming mighty trees.  And so I don’t have much time because they hit the spot, I take one shot.  Pull the holder out and turn it around for one more shot, and that’s it.

I pack up everything and head home.

When I get home I go into my bathroom darkroom and remove the two sheets of exposed film.  One of them has gotten wet and is sticking a bit to the holder.  I develop them that day, one at a time.  The beauty of this is that I can hold up the first negative to the light and determine whether it’s exposed properly.  It’s a bit flat.  Not very contrasty.  So I develop the second sheet and give it more time in the developer.  When it’s been fixed I hold it to the light and it looks just right.

By the afternoon I’ve made a 16 x 20 inch print.  Let it dry.  Flatten it.  And look at it.  Well, I like it, but it also has that “postcard” look.  That’s something that was in my head at the time.  I didn’t want to make simply beautiful prints – I wanted to be more than that.  So I put the negative and the print away.

About a month later, a photographer friend stopped by, and I was showing him some of my recent shots – and he wasn’t much impressed by anything until I pulled out the Promenade print.  “Ah,” he said.  “That is fantastic.”

We argued about it a while, with me still insisting that it was too postcardy.  But he won out and I began to show it to other friends and photographers I knew who all thought it was a good print of a well-known area of the park.  As I say – I didn’t really know that this was the most photographed spot in the park or I might not have even bothered with it.

Long story short – when I did go into the business of selling photographs – this one shot has outsold every other shot I’ve done since (as I write this it’s almost 20 years later).  So it shows what I know about my own work.

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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.