CNN Photos

New York’s ‘immigrant trees’

In New York City exist places where nature has not been rearranged by man, places where the freshest air is not found atop the Empire State Building but rather under a shady maple, places where living organisms don’t come in the form of germs on a metro train.

Not ostensibly visible, but these untouched oases exist – giving Earth its air, in all five boroughs, sought out and photographed by Mitch Epstein in his new book, “New York Arbor.”

The Big Apple may not be rich in trees, but it is rich in proportion to the number the city has afforded to save. Some holding roots for 300 to 400 years, taking up residence on sidewalks, parks and cemeteries, these trees are as much a part of the city as its younger yet more cowering concrete figures.

Epstein traversed the city using his analogue camera to photograph the nature in a city he rarely thought of as more than concrete.

After photographing “American Power,” a project focused on national energy production and consumption, Epstein shifted his focus to trees: a counterpoint to industry and a subject that he could “honor, rather than lament.”

In a diverse city, there lie trees imported from all over the world. “Immigrant trees,” he called them: Bald cypress trees from the southern swamps, Caucasian wingnut trees from Persia, weeping beech trees from Europe.

Not unlike the inhabitants of New York, these trees have adapted and assimilated to the harsh climate of a city that is different from their origins. Yet each tree, like each city resident, clings to some part of its original character, making New York City the quintessential mixing bowl of diversity.

Adapting to seasons, shedding leaves, shaking in the cold breeze, absorbing the rain: Epstein’s black-and-white photos allowed him to focus on the character of the trees, which would otherwise be lost to distraction in color film.  It also enabled him to follow the cycle of seasons and times of day without colors distracting from the tree itself.

“These contemporary photos display the living organisms that came before… life wasn’t just this fast, urban place,” he said.

In a decade that’s been so unsettled all over the world, it’s comforting to find something so firming, rooted and stable. Many of these trees were diplomatic gestures, pieces of history, a reflection of what one’s relationship might be to nature, or to the country endowing this breathing organism.

For Epstein, the project has led him to identify and connect with nature. He is not alone, as there is a collective critical consciousness about trees in New York.

“People really come together to keep trees from vulnerability,” he said. “All are owners of nature and responsible to be respectful of it. We all benefit from all that it gives to us.”

He adds that the connections are evident between people and nature and how communities can turn toward a tree for security.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has enlisted a campaign to plant a million trees in Gotham City, noting benefits such as better air quality, cooler temperatures, provided sanctuary and an overall healthier environment.

The infrastructure does not exist to support it, but Epstein is hoping to change that, invoking the public to see trees as more than just an obstacle in the middle of a sidewalk, but as a means to measure the depths of their own nature.

- Michelle Cohan, CNN