George Hirose’s stunning photographs of Lower East Side community gardens are being exhibited at Bloom Projects, 95 East 7th Street, through Sunday.
In the past couple of months, this neighborhood’s public gardens — a longtime focal point of the Lower East Side social activism — have been a hot topic once again. Just last night, we learned that the city has agreed to make the Children’s Magical Garden on Norfolk Street permanent, hopefully bringing a three-decade fight for the space to a happy conclusion.
Hirose, a photographer who’s lived in the neighborhood for many years, began capturing the gardens at night in 2011. His striking images are on view alongside pastels on paper by artist Donna Levinstone. Last weekend, we stopped by the gallery to speak with Hirose, who envisions the garden series as a long-term project.
“I fell in love with the gardens,” said Hirose. “I have been going to various gardens (in the East Village) for a very long time. I remember them starting up and replacing vacant lots and crack houses and shooting galleries. That was a big deal for the neighborhood to become more livable.” Hirose said he loves the fact that the gardens are always changing, always in transition and that each one has its own personality. “It’s all about context and where they are,” he explained. “In a lot of my photographs, I really like to show that there are these little paradises that are carved out of empty lots. You see buildings on the side, you see windows, you see fire escapes. I love the juxtaposition.”
Hirose aims for exposures in his night photos from 6-8 minutes, but sometimes they are up to 30 minutes. His images reveal a palette and details in the gardens that can’t be seen otherwise. “I’m really interested in how you transform reality with the camera,” he said. “At night your eyes can’t really accommodate color.” The idea, he said, is to be right on the edge between reality and fantasy.
In those late night hours, Hirose is quite resourceful, drawing on whatever light sources might become available. In one example (see above) from the Creative Little Garden on East 6th Street, firefighters showed up after a barbeque grill began spewing smoke. You can see the effect from the fire engine’s red lights. “It’s all about enhancing what’s already there,” said Hirose.
Hirose has documented 30 gardens so far. Among his favorite spots: the 6th Street and Avenue B Garden, which boasts one of the more robust community organizations and offers a wide variety of cultural and educational programming. In his photo, he kept his tripod very low in order to capture the garden from the perspective of his daughter back when she was a little girl; it was one of her favorite spots as a child.
Hirose said the real joy in the project has been meeting a group of amazing people who have fought on behalf of the neighborhood gardens and care for them day-in-and-day out. They’re all run differently, he noted, but at their heart the gardens tend to be “basically like little Communist societies… There’s old school. There’s new school (in terms of the way they’re administered)… They’re all kind of edgy.”
Hirose’s work has been focused above Houston Street, but he’s now becoming interested in spaces such as the Children’s Magical Garden. Last month, developer Serge Hoyda put up a fence, dividing a parcel he owns from two other city-owned lots. “I think that gardens are always in danger,” he said. “I’ve seen gardens come and go or relocate as developers come in. The Children’s Magical Garden — that’s such an abomination. The garden has been there for 30 years.”
Tomorrow night, Hirose and Donna Levinstone will be at Bloom Projects for an artist talk. Their Q&A will be preceded by a reading from Peter de Jonge, the author of “Buried on Avenue B,” a novel partially set in the garden at 6th Street and Avenue B. The evening begins at 7:30. Bloom Projects is located downstairs at 95 East 7th Street. The gallery will also be open Saturday and Sunday from 1-6 p.m.