A Ramble in Olmstead Parks

When Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) visited England as a journalist in 1850, he was greatly impressed by Birkenhead Park, the first publicly funded British park, designed by Joseph Paxton, who had been made head gardener at Chatsworth when only 23 in 1826, and is probably best-known as the architect of the great Crystal Palace.

This park marked the start of a movement to create public parks, and Olmstead was its great pioneer in the USA, working with English architect Calvert Vaux. Their first design was for a competition to build a Central Park in New York, which they won and started work on in 1858, and thus it celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.

They went on to design parks in virtually every city in the country, setting up the first landscape architecture firm, which continued to operate after his death in 1903, and designed more than 350 academic campuses as well as parks.  Olmstead set down detailed principles of design which underlie the apparently natural vistas of all his creations.

As a part the celebration of 150 years of Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is putting on a show of images by Lee Friedlander, one of my favourite photographers and a key figure in medium in the second half of the 20th century, taken in this and Olmstead’s many other parks across America.

Friedlander started shooting in Central Park in the mid-1980’s, and in 1988 gained a commission from the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal (where Olmstead’s Mount Royal Park opened in 1876) to photograph in other Olmstead parks. He worked on this over the next six years, but continued to photograph the parks for around 20 years in all.

The exhibition continues until May 11, and you can read more about it in a feature in the New York Times, which also has a set of 10 pictures on line. They include images in square, 3:2 and panoramic formats, from an interesting period in the photographer’s work.  Although the museum promises to have more information on its web site, currently there is little more than the title and dates and a press release. The show will have around 40 pictures, many never previously exhibited, and is accompanied by a book, Lee Friedlander Photographs: Frederick Law Olmstead Landscapes, with 89 images and an introduction by Friedlander.

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