Carla lives in the East Village and is a former member of community garden 6BC. Her father’s 60th birthday was right around the corner, and she wanted to give him the gift of a beautiful family portrait. So what better location for her session than garden 6BC – her own backyard, so to speak? If you have a similar community garden family portrait in the works, here are a few details that you need to know.
Carla’s Family Portrait
The plan for the day was to take advantage of the lush location and capture lovely, natural photos. As luck would have it, I was in the process of going through all my old Martha Stewart Living magazines, so I used Martha’s world as inspiration for this shoot. The dream-like effect of soft light filtered through beautiful flowers was exactly the look Carla was going for, so we scheduled the shoot for ‘golden hour’ – or one hour prior to sunset. There was no set shot list of family members, but I alternated shots between photos of everyone together, individual photos, and then smaller groups such as Carla’s mother, Lynette, and father, Jose; Carla and her sister Sophia, and Carla and her boyfriend, Ben.
I also varied my locations for the photo shoot. Roughly half the portrait session was set in the garden 6BC, while the other half of the session were spent on a tree-lined corner of Seventh Street and Avenue C. We ended the shoot at a wine bar for a celebratory bottle of wine to wish Jose a happy birthday. Winding up at the bar, Mace, was true serendipity. Originally we were trying to get a sidewalk table at restaurant Esperanto, next door. Unfortunately, Esperanto was completely booked, but the table with the fantastic window at wine bar Mace was available. I mean, come on, that wide window was meant for a photo shoot! And thus we ended the family portrait on a fantastic note.
Community Garden Family Portrait –
Planning Your Photo Session
Most New Yorkers do not have backyards. Instead, we have to rely on either the huge city parks or the tiny community gardens scattered across the city. These community gardens are beautiful little oases just begging to be the settings of a great family portrait. There are some basic rules to follow, however, if you are looking to use the gardens as your photo shoot backdrop.
Photo shoots may not technically be allowed. It’s hard to find any mention of a photography policy on the garden websites, and when I spoke to a garden volunteer, he said that garden 6BC normally requires payment to set up a photo shoot. So does this mean you can’t shoot in the community gardens? Well, yes and no. As with most New York City locations, it’s a matter of ask forgiveness, not permission. If you are planning to take over the entire garden, say for a large bridal party shoot, then yes, you should definitely make arrangements with the garden ahead of time. But if you’re just there for a small family portrait and you are not going to bother any other patrons, then you’ll probably get away with it. Note that the key is to not bother any other visitors. If you have an excessively loud group, need a tripod, or have extensive lights set up, then count yourself out of luck. While I was in garden 6BC with Carla and her family, a few visitors did get up to leave because we were obviously engaged in a photo shoot. I tried, however, to be as quiet and as unobtrusive as possible.
Don’t spend all your time in the garden. To me, the true beauty of these tiny community gardens is the fact that they are sandwiched in between apartment buildings. It’s almost as if Mother Nature is trying to take back the city. To get the most out of your garden shoot, juxtapose your portraits against the urban environment. Take a walk and explore the world around the garden. Next door to the garden 6BC was some colorful Alphabet City graffiti that I used to play with the family members names. I also used a street off of Seventh Street that miraculously did not have ugly scaffolding overhead. Mixing up your portrait backgrounds gives your viewer a full sense of the environment, and speaks more to the personality of the portrait subjects versus if you remained in only one location. Tell the story of the community from every angle. And most importantly, by splitting up our time and not spending the entire photo session in garden 6BC, we made sure not to annoy too many visitors and run the risk of getting thrown out.
Every garden is different. Garden 6BC is a long space, and includes both a tree house and a koi pond. There is a separate seating area and a grape vine-covered walkway. But that doesn’t mean that every community garden will have these same features. Some gardens are more, shall we say, veggie-centric. Others are full of kitschy art. Each garden has its own personality, and you should keep the tone of your photo shoot in tune with that garden’s specific personality. Martha Stewart would feel right at home in garden 6BC, but the Bohemian art of Sixth Street and Avenue B community garden might not be to her taste.
The gardens have weird hours. The community gardens are run by volunteers, so the opening and closing times have to work around their schedules. Here are some sample hours:
April (weather permitting) through October
Saturday & Sunday, 12:00 – 6:00 p.m.
Monday through Friday, 6:00 PM – dusk
April through October 31
Saturday & Sunday, 1:00 – 6:00 p.m.
Additionally, Garden members may open the garden at other times – the garden is open to the public
whenever the gate is open.
As you can see, the gardens are not open at convenient times. Always check the garden front gate to see the hours posted; it seems to differ from garden to garden. Most of the gardens do not have websites that list the hours, so you may have to make a trip beforehand. Also, note that weekends are the most popular times for the gardens. And while it would make sense to shoot during the week, as I found on my venue check the Friday before my family portrait with Carla, those hours are sometimes meaningless. A volunteer never came by to open the gate on Friday, but I lucked out with a sneak peek at the garden by meeting a volunteer with a key who had to come by for another reason.
Membership has its privileges. If you are a volunteer in a garden, then of course you get the inside scoop on the garden’s hours and perhaps you can skirt by any photo policy rules. If you would like to find out about becoming a member of a local community garden, check out the Grow NYC website. Once upon a time, when I was living in Washington D.C., I applied to be a member of my local garden; one of the nation’s last victory gardens from World War II. I received notice in the mail of my membership approval the day I left D.C., after having been on the waiting list for two years. Long story short, expect a wait for your membership approval.
I was thrilled to photograph Carla and her family in the garden, and I hope there are many more community garden family portraits in my future. If you are interested in scheduling your own portrait session, drop me a line!
If you would like to see more images from my portfolio, like these Community Garden family portraits, then please visit my website – KellyWilliamsPhotographer.com