The Once and Future Now – Review of “Olmsted Trees” by Stanley Greenberg

It is relatively commonplace for a collection of photographs to have an historical intent.  We are accustomed to looking at old photographs, especially of places we know well in our present time, and marveling about the change between then and now. Photographs preserve not only the façade of the past, they give substantial evidence of the tone and character and ethos of our world before any one of us took breath.

“Olmsted Trees” by Stanley Greenberg
Published by Hirmer Publishing, 2022
review by W. Scott Olsen

Sometimes, though, this historical intent gets stood on its head and the results are fascinating.

Olmsted Trees is a contemporary collection of black and white photographs of trees, old trees, mostly centered on the base of the trees’ trunks. The trunks are gnarled and twisted and shaped by time.  They are intensely detailed and textured and give evidence of more than a century’s growth.

Ulmus glabra “camperdownii” Camperdown Elm, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
(across from Boat House. present in 1903 Prospect Park)
© Stanley Greenberg

And that is exactly the point. The story of these trees, and the reason they are so intriguing now, begins more than a century ago.

Frederick Law Olmsted (Wait, you’re thinking, I know that name!) was a landscape architect, among many other things, in the 19th Century. He was responsible for New York City’s Central Park as well as Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Franklin Park, Washington Park and Jackson Park in Chicago, and the US Capitol grounds in Washington, DC. And Olmsted had a genius approach to his thinking about the use of his designs over time.

Olmsted Trees contains three insightful essays that help place the project in historical, aesthetic and personal contexts. In “Rooted In Place” by novelist, historian and journalist Kevin Baker, he writes,

…Olmsted always embraced the idea that his parks were to be used, and to change as they were used.

“[We] determined to think of no results to be realized in less than 40 years,” he later wrote to his son and protege Frederick Jr. “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and …


Leave a Reply