Laura Twersky takes photos at Wave Hill in Riverdale.
Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
“It’s actually a beautiful day,”
informed us. “You have light coming from all directions. The colors are stronger on a day like this. You don’t have the sun.”
We definitely did not have the sun for our early-morning nature-photography course at Wave Hill, 28 acres of public gardens overlooking the Hudson River in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. What we had instead were several varieties of rain. They ranged from a mild drizzle to a fairly insistent downpour.
“The goals today are different,” Mr. Swett continued. His photography books include “Great Trees of New York City: A Guide.” For 13 years he was a photographer with the NYC Parks Department. “Everything is going to have slower shutter speeds.”
That didn’t apply to me. I had no control over my shutter speed. I would be shooting with my iPhone. It wasn’t hubris. I wasn’t hoping to show up my fellow students with their Nikons and Hasselblads, or whatever the brands. I’ve just noticed that I shoot everything these daysâfrom work-related images to family photos and even videosâwith my smartphone. So why should I use my regular camera, which has been gathering dust for years, when the quality of the images seems no better and possibly worse.
A shot taken by the columnist with his smartphone.
Ralph Gardner/The Wall Street Journal
Also, capturing prize-winning pictures wasn’t my main priority. Seeing Wave Hill was. This was my first, long-overdue visit to the grounds, cultural center and its extremely tasteful gift shop. The place was built as a country house in 1843 and bought by
George W. Perkins,
a partner of J.P. Morgan, in 1903. These days it belongs to New York City.
The place still feels like some wealthy person’s country retreat. Were it not for the George Washington Bridge to the south, framed by trees and lawn and shrouded in fog on this particular morning, and the sounds of Amtrak trains racing along the river below us, you could imagine yourself back in the 19th century with its more sensible pace of life.
My first stop and photographic subject was Wave Hill’s Wild Garden with its narrow paths planted with poppies, irises, lupines and columbines. Many adolescents suffer, and make others suffer, through a poetry-writing phase. Might there also be a precious photography phase?
Perhaps that’s no longer true with the effortlessness of being able to post your images to Facebook and Instagram. And the impatience of life today. “I was always bored by the process,” my daughter recalled of her after-school photography courses and time spent in the darkroom. “It was unbelievable how long it took.”
In my era, we threw our hearts and souls into high school photography. With our artsy black-and-white Pentax images of waterfalls or abstract shots of midtown skyscrapers we felt we were shooting for posterity.
And then the part that made it official: retiring to the darkroom where, hopefully in the company of someone who knew what they were doing, and the cooperation of an enlarger, a timer, tongs, safelight, and processing trays filled with developer, stop bath and fixer you could bring forth into the world an artfully rendered shot of a mountain stream or your girlfriend.
I recalled that anticipation as I readied my iPhone to shoot the Wild Garden’s flowers. By now the rain was starting to fall more forcefully, which I didn’t mind even though I wasn’t carrying an umbrella.
Benjamin Swett looks over work as part of his photography class at the public gardens.
Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
Rain creates its own mood, one that insulates you in your thoughts, especially in the quiet of early morning and at a place as well tended as Wave Hill. I eventually abandoned the photography altogether just to walk the grounds.
When I returned to Wave Hill House, where Mr. Swett was to critique our images, my pants and baseball cap were soaked. “The edges are the most important part of the photograph,” he told one student, as he projected an image she’d taken of the property’s formal flower garden on a screen in the front of the room. “If something is intruding on the edge you wonder what it is. You always want to feel the photographer is giving you what he wants to give you.”
The time had come to review my images. I’d submitted fourâthe multicolored bark on a rare Chinese pine (even though I didn’t realize it was rare or featured in Mr. Swett’s “New York City of Trees”); close-ups of a poppy and some mystery flower; and an image of Kevin Hagen, my photographer, shooting my fellow photography-class participants.
“Look at the water drops on the lens,” Mr. Swett marveled. He was referring to the drops on Mr. Hagen’s camera. “These are wonderful. Extremely sharp. I’m extremely impressed.”
I suspected that he was reacting less to my eye than to the technology. But that was fine. It’s hard to take much credit when you’re shooting on an iPhone.