New York Photographer Betsy Pinover Schiff Sees Beauty on Every Corner

Planted by the Fund for Park Avenue, the street's famous malls are in full bloom in spring with cherry trees and fiery orange tulips.NYC&G: How did you get into garden photography?
Betsy Pinover Schiff: My earlier career was in public relations, where I worked at Sotheby’s, the New York Public Library, and the New York Botanical Garden, the last of which brought me to photographing gardens. I also studied photography in workshops with master photographers at the ICP [International Center of Photography] and the School of Visual Arts. During all this time, I got myself gigs around the Northeast, so I could learn more about exposures and f-stops while shooting at events.

What do you find interesting about gardens in New York City?
What excites me most is the play between the softness of plantings in city gardens in contrast to all the concrete and glass of this great metropolis. Even a tiny planting in juxtaposition with a giant building is intriguing to me. The difference in scale and texture is something I love.

A waterfall bisects the plaza at 1221 Avenue of the Americas.What inspired your brand-new book, Sidewalk Gardens of New York [The Monacelli Press]?
People typically think New York City gardens are limited to private terraces, but there has been an explosive growth of gardens of all types around the city during the last 15 years. I began to notice it as I walked up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum, when I started scrutinizing the tree beds in the sidewalks. And then I’d be in the Village for dinner and notice the tree beds there. And those giant blocks of concrete designed to protect the façades of high-security buildings, suddenly overflowing with flowers. Almost overnight, the city started to feel friendlier and more beautiful, with lovely plantings everywhere.

Honey locusts line the vest-pocket Greenacre park on East 51st Street.Which city garden surprises you the most?
The subway plaza at 96th Street and Broadway is wonderful, and where East Harlem starts, on Park Avenue and 97th Street, there’s a little gem of a garden by Lynden Miller, the designer who renovated Bryant Park. What’s great is that you don’t have to pay an admission fee or need private access to almost any of the city’s gardens.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?
The plant palette in New York City may have its limits, but the way people combine plants is always interesting. I hope I’ve demonstrated the wonderful imagination of New Yorkers by capturing the sheer depth and creativity of their gardens. My goal is for readers to ask, “Where is that? Is that in my city?” And I hope it will open people’s eyes and encourage them to stop texting and look at what is right in front of them. I love that people are enjoying digging!

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue of NYC&G (New York Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Street Smart.