By Sabina Mollot
Ever since the 1970s, when he moved to the East Village, photographer George Hirose found himself inspired by the scenes there that were both gritty and pretty. In particular, he was a huge fan of the community gardens that popped up then and the years that followed, since it was usually the locals’ way of thumbing – or rather greenthumbing their noses – at would-be developers of vacant lots.
Now a resident of Stuyvesant Town, Hirose has continued his love affair with the community gardens and is involved in the tending of a couple of them. He has also, since the spring of this year, been working on an ongoing exhibit of photos he’s taken of the gardens in the East Village and along the Lower East Side.
An exhibit is currently on display at the 14th Street Y, where Hirose will also be speaking about the photos on December 29 at 3 p.m. In addition, some of his photos are also on display across the street at Kati restaurant, 347 East 14th Street.
So far, he’s captured 30 of the 39 gardens in the area, and there are some he wants to go back to.
“I want to give a sense of the individuality of the places and how special they are,” said Hirose. “People are
interested in what other people are doing even if it’s out of the range of their immediate environment.”
As for his own interest in the gardens, for Hirose, they were always a way to meet likeminded people, artists, musicians and other characters, along with the nightclubs in the Lower East Side in the 70s and 80s. They were also a way to enjoy a bit of nature close to home, allowing a brief escape from the crime-ridden streets and graffiti-covered buildings.
However, even as the neighborhood gentrified over the years since then, the volunteer-run gardens still remained a special place to Hirose. A couple of them even had play areas for kids, and he would take his daughter to the gardens when she was younger.
“Some of them don’t have much in them, some have a lot in them,” he said, adding that some are obviously run better than others. Naturally, he has more appreciation for those where volunteers have been willing to let him in at night when the gardens are normally closed so he can do his photography.
The photos Hirose takes are always at night, enhanced by additional light sources he’ll bring into the gardens, since he wants to capture the bright colors of the trees and plantings. He also uses long camera exposures of up to 20 minutes and digital enhancements.
“It’s a very different way to see the gardens,” he said, explaining that the naked eye can’t see much in the way of depth and color in the dark. “So I have my camera do the things that my eyes are unable to do.”
For Hirose, a professor of photography at Pratt, it was only recently that he decided to start photographing the gardens. His hesitation, he said, had to do with his feeling that the art community would look down on his attempt to present the subject matter in a beautiful way. But, he said, “This was something I really loved and I just wanted to create something beautiful. I’d like for the whole city to be aware of community gardens in general.”
He’s also been concerned about the future of the gardens since one, called the Children’s Magical Garden on the corner of Norfolk and Stanton Streets, has been fighting to keep part of its space, which is slated for development of a six-story building.
“In the Lower East Side, there’s no real parks except for Tompkins Square, so it is important,” he said.
As for Stuyvesant Town, where he’s lived for the past 12 years, Hirose said he doesn’t feel compelled to photograph it much (though he’s made exceptions for the squirrel population). He also loves that it’s a natural bird sanctuary.
Though he does think the grounds look attractive, the problem, said Hirose, is that the property is “too manicured for my photography,” and therefore lacking the personality and roughness of the community gardens.
“It’s my home but I don’t feel a connection,” he admitted.
“It feels institutionally beautiful. It’s landscaped. The dynamics come from when neighbors gather to create something. I like when it’s a little grungier.”
Hirose’s photos will remain on display at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street between First and Second Avenues, through December 29. Hours are Monday through Friday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Saturday from 7 a.m. To 9 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. To 9 p.m.
For more information, visit www.georgehirose.com.