Until last weekend, I had never taken a picture in Central Park. The idea just never occurred to me. I suppose there's no urgency to capture something that's always there, always essentially the same. Sure, the Park changes slowly over the seasons and over the years. There's the Philharmonic on the Great Lawn in summer and ice skating at Wollman Rink in winter. Caretaking fluctuates along with the city's fortunes. Still, New Yorkers and other frequent visitors can take comfort in knowing that the green space envisioned by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux some 150-odd years ago is a constant refuge.
“The Gates” demands an entirely different attitude. Regardless of what we think about the success of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's massive public art installation, we know it's something Central Park has never seen before and will never see again. At the end of 16 days, the 7,500 orange flags positioned along the Park's walkways will be dismantled and shipped off for recycling. Unlike the Park itself, “The Gates” is available for a limited time only. And so I joined the throng that converged on Central Park last week, Olympus Stylus in hand.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude said they wanted their work to complement Olmsted and Vaux's vision, highlighting the serpentine paths and echoing the curving tree branches above. New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman suggested that one of the installation's strengths is the way it makes us more attuned to the Park and its intricacies. “The gates,” he wrote, “remind us how much those paths vary, in width, and height, like the crowds of people who walk along them. More than that, being so sensitive to nature, they make us more sensitive to its effects.” Indeed, “The Gates” has lured people to Central Park at a time of year when it is usually underappreciated. And perhaps the installation has led them to parts of the Park they might not otherwise have happened upon. But I found that the “The Gates” actually makes Central Park harder to see. I don't mean that I was bothered by the crowds. I mean that there is something about its temporality, and the corresponding urge to preserve the image, that disposes viewers toward a heavily mediated experience; everything is filtered.
First, it's impossible to see “The Gates” without thinking about how it will soon be gone. The knowledge of imminent departure provokes anxiety. We must look back on “The Gates” at the same time we experience it for the first time. “This is the friendliest you'll ever see New Yorkers,” said one woman as she thanked me for taking her family's picture. “It will be so empty when everybody's gone,” lamented another woman, surveying the masses encircling the Great Lawn. I overheard a teenage girl ask her friends, “Why would you bring a blind kid to see `The Gates' in Central Park?” One answer would have been that it's about more than literally seeing. It's about the crowd and the commentary and the snap of nylon in the wind. But one of her companions, revealing more about his own mindset than anything else, responded, “To say he was here.” Visitors to “The Gates” had trouble remaining in the present without being distracted by what they would say in the past tense. (In this, I was just as much a culprit as anyone, jotting down notes that I might use in an essay.) Moreover, people seemed overwhelmed by nostalgia even in advance of experiencing the installation firsthand. Nothing epitomized this better than the people I watched accost a “Gates” caretaker at the West 81st Street entrance, demanding souvenir orange swatches—“we heard you would have them”--before they had even set foot in the Park.
And then there are the cameras. Everyone has one. Some people have more than one. There are digital cameras, telephoto lens cameras, cameras on tripods, cell phone cameras, and plastic cameras for kids. This isn't in itself surprising. “The Gates” makes everyone a tourist. (The best way to distinguish the New Yorkers from outsiders: Assume the locals are the ones who dress their dogs in Burberry.) And, of course, taking photos is what tourists do. But, as I looked around, I was disturbed to notice that more people were looking through the limiting frame of a camera lens than directly through their own eyes. They appeared bent on a quest for, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it, “the decisive moment” that captures the essence of the situation. And perhaps because they figured they would have pictures to reflect upon later, they didn't seem concerned about looking at “The Gates” live as anything more than a series of potential compositions. “Oh, look. This would be a cool perspective with the lamps, and then you follow it around.” “Doug, here I am going under the first orange gate.” “Mom, can we stand on that rock? Can we stand around the pole in a circle?” “Perfect.” “Right there, that's perfect.”
To be sure, heavily mediated experience is not a contemporary phenomenon. Visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair, for instance, took their share of photographs. And they knew the event was temporary. But, whereas World's Fair exhibits were about novelty, “The Gates” is about repetition. It doesn't require sustained concentration. People can notice the light coming through the fabric one instant and then resume unrelated conversations the next. Another difference is the proliferation of technology. Not every World's Fair visitor owned a camera. And certainly they didn't narrate their experience into cell phones: “I love it.” “It's getting breezy out.” “There are so many tourists everywhere.” Similarly, mass communication now is so much more immediate and consuming. Rarely can we experience something first, without having to filter it through someone else's perspective. I overheard one man offer his opinion of “The Gates” merely as confirmation of an earlier review: “I think the art is what they said: the way people interact with it.”
With so many obstacles to seeing “The Gates,” I admired the father who urged his brood: “Take it in, guys.” By then, I had put away my Olympus and was straining to see outside the viewfinder. It was a unique moment in Central Park, a shame to miss. I laughed when my friend, who had been taking shots as we walked along, looked down and said, “Uh, oh. You know what? This film is black and white.”