By CLARE GEMIMA November 27, 2023
In this interview, I sit down with photographer and activist George Hirose to discuss his latest photographic exhibition, Midnight in the People’s Garden: Night Photos from NYC Community Gardens, now showing at EV Gallery. Through his lens, Hirose captures the enigmatic beauty of New York City's community gardens after dark, providing a rare and intriguing perspective on these urban oases. Hirose shares stories behind each photograph, offering a glimpse into the intricate tapestry of life that unfolds when the sun sets. His work not only showcases the aesthetic allure of these community spaces under the night sky but also boldly delves into the social and environmental aspects that make them vital hubs within the city. Throughout my discussion with Hirose, I made an attempt to explore the intersection of his artistry and activism, and to unravel the significance of his romantic midnight captures of community gardens that never, ever seem to sleep.
Clare Gemima: How did your initial interest in night photography converge with your role as a community gardener, and consequently lead you to the exploration of New York’s gardens after dark?
George Hirose: By nature, I am a night person which is one of the reasons I like to live in NYC. I had been doing night photography seriously since around 2004, and I published a book of night photographs about Provincetown, MA called Blue Nights in 2008 which required repeated trips up to Cape Cod. I then decided to concentrate on a project closer to home and began to seriously document the East Village and Lower East Side where I had been volunteering at multiple community gardens. Having been in the area since the late 1970’s, I remember the neighborhood as a decimated place strewn with empty lots filled with trash and rubble. The positive side of this was that young and creative people, including many artists and musicians, could find cheap rents, or squat in abandoned buildings. Around this time, new as well as long-time residents began to empty out vacant lots to grow food, create safe havens for children and neighbors, and to basically bring some nature and beauty to a decayed landscape.
The project first began because I decided that I wanted to see all of the community gardens in my neighborhood (which now total over 50), and became intrigued by the individual character of each garden and how it reflected the community that tended to it. My goal is to try to capture some essential character of each garden. One of my greatest joys throughout the process has been to meet garden members and share stories about our experiences. This project would not be possible without the support and kindness of gardeners who let me into their gardens, often well after they would be closed to the public. My interest and scope eventually extended to other gardens all over the city.
Clare Gemima: In your exhibition, you mention capturing the "mysterious beauty" of urban garden culture after sunset. Can you elaborate on what aspects of this beauty you find most intriguing, and how your long exposures contribute to revealing details and pigments invisible to the average garden appreciator?
George Hirose: There is something magical that happens when you are in a natural oasis in an urban setting after dark. You can still hear the sounds of the city while ambient light from street lamps, apartment windows, and store signs find their way into the garden. I also supplement this light with flash lights, a method which I refer to as “light painting”. Working with long exposures, usually from one to ten minutes, allows me to achieve a maximum depth of field and clarity. Unlike the human eye, when your pupils enlarge in the dark and it’s hard to see colors and depth, the camera lens has the ability to capture what your eye can’t see.
Clare Gemima: Your photographs span a decade, and cover various neighborhoods in NYC. How do you see your work contributing to the documentation and preservation of the city’s unique garden history and struggle, especially in the context of ongoing gentrification and development?
George Hirose: I see my work as a love letter to the community gardens, and a tribute to urban garden culture. There is a continuous struggle to save our gardens from developers who want to build on the heels of gentrification. On the Lower East Side nearly every garden is founded on land that became vacant as a result of neglect, or from a building fire that was deliberately set by a landlord who wanted to collect on insurance money - something very commonplace in the 1970s and 80s. It is truly amazing now to see how these once abandoned plots of land have majorly evolved, and flourished with growth. They have often also become a cornerstone of activism as gathering places for positive engagement in their communities.
Clare Gemima: Beyond photography, you are actively involved in community activism, serving on the board of LUNGS NYC (Loisaida United Neighborhood Gardens), and the Children’s Magical Garden. How does your activism inform your artistic perspective, and do you see your photographs as a form of advocacy for the preservation of these communal spaces?
George Hirose: I think that it is important that everyone supports their community organizations in whatever way they can. I am also a solid believer in art as a way to support activism and one’s world view.mLUNGS NYC is a grassroots organization that honors the history and legacy of what was primarily a Nuyorican neighborhood and helps to create a central voice that lies outside of NYC’s government agencies. We also put on events like “Spring Awakening” in April, as well as the “Harvest Arts Festival” every October to celebrate the gardens in a way where dozens of individual gardens will host events over the course of 10 days. The Children’s Magical Garden is the primary garden where I volunteer and spend my time. We also host multiple community gatherings which include jazz concerts (in collaboration with Arts for Art), NYC Open Streets on summer weekends, workshops for school children, and our yearly Halloween and Solstice events. We are also currently fighting the illegal encroachment of a developer who wants to build on one of our three plots, so it is important to stay galvanized. I also proudly serve on the boards of, or actively support the efforts of several Asian-American organizations and all of this reflects the type of work that I do.
Clare Gemima: Midnight in the People’s Garden documents gardens in various neighborhoods, including the Bronx and Queens. How does the cultural diversity of these locations influence the atmosphere and character of the community gardens you photograph?
George Hirose: That is one of the things that interests me the most, to see how a garden functions within the community it is based. In some neighborhoods like in the Bronx, and Harlem where cultural diversity is prominent, many gardens may be based strongly on food production with a communal focus. Where I’m based on the Lower East Side (which for me includes the East Village and Loisaida), many gardens were started by the Nuyorican community that dominated the neighborhood several decades ago and had a strong social function. While we have many “plot” driven gardens where individual gardeners produce vegetables, herbs and grow flowers, some gardens may generally be a little bit smaller and be tended to with a more democratic approach. The smallest gardens, often referred to as “Pocket Gardens” may simply provide a quiet space for people to decompress and enjoy nature. Also as neighborhoods become increasingly gentrified, the focus seems to shift towards flowers and beautification which actually often provide a colorful environment for me to photograph.
Clare Gemima: Could you talk more about Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story, especially considering this project is so evocative of your commitment to storytelling through various mediums.
George Hirose: Yes, we have been traveling extensively to festivals all across the US screening Photographic Justice, and have been getting a very positive and heartwarming response. Corky Lee was an Asian-American documentary photographer and activist that photographed the Pan-Asian community for five decades, often centering on racism and social injustice. He may have done more than anyone else when it came to documenting our community, and making us visible by retelling our stories of struggle, and sharing those of solidarity and celebration. Unfortunately, he died from Covid in January 2021. It was a great loss to many as he was a much beloved educator and community leader. The film was directed by my friend Jennifer Takaki who followed him around with a video camera for 19 years until he passed away, so it is an intimate glimpse into his life and achievements. On a personal level, I met Corky in the 1980’s, and he had a profound effect on shifting my identity as a Japanese-American to that of an Asian-American activist. He taught me to find the value in the power of communal solidarity, which has also been extended upon through my commitment to the garden community. One of the things I’m most excited about is that we played a part in an effort to have Mosco Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown co-named Corky Lee Way, and a new street sign was put up on the corner. A great community street celebration! Please visit www.photographicjustice.com and google Corky Lee for info and images of his powerful photography.
Clare Gemima: How does your work as a filmmaker and producer influence your approach to photography, specifically while you were planning Midnight in the People’s Garden, and vice versa?
George Hirose: I originally made experimental films in college but switched to photography in my senior year of undergraduate school. I liked the independence and mobility of being a photographer, as well as the craft of making prints. Over the past few years I have re-started as a filmmaker by making short videos, mostly time-lapses documenting street corners in a series called “Sidewalk Suites”. My personal work, including Midnight in the People’s Garden, has always been primarily visually oriented but inflected and influenced by story-telling. In the end, I think film and photography fill different areas of my creative needs. As a film producer, I primarily enjoy working with filmmakers that tell stories that have socio-political impact with a cultural resonance. I try to keep moving and try to explore new territories which is my main objective in life!
Please follow me on IG @ghirose60, George Hirose on FB, and visit www.georgehirose.com for more information and visuals.
For EV Gallery, please follow @_ev.gallery to keep up with live events. George Hirose’s Midnight in the People’s Garden: Night Photos from NYC Community Gardens was on view October 29 - November 19, 2023. EV Gallery 621 E. 11th St. NYC, New York. WM
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author