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Q&A With Robert McCabe, Pt. 1: The Ramble in Central Park

Robert McCabe is a photographer whose numerous books include The Ramble in Central Park: A Wilderness West of Fifth (Abbeville, 2011), Weekend in Havana: An American Photographer in the Forbidden City (Abbeville, 2007), DeepFreeze! A Photographer’s Antarctic Odyssey in the Year 1959, and On the Road with a Rollei in the ’50s. His photographs have been exhibited in the United States, France, and Greece, including most recently in Corfu, and have appeared in numerous publications. This week McCabe was kind enough to field some questions from the Abbeville Blog about his two Abbeville volumes, beginning with The Ramble.

The 38 acres of New York’s Central Park known as the Ramble are dense with trees, streams, and giant granite boulders; teeming with birds and other wildlife; and beautified by rustic bridges. For McCabe, this urban oasis is the heart and soul of the park.

Q. How did the Ramble project come about? What fascinated you about this particular aspect of the city and the park?

A. I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with my aunt for Thanksgiving a few years ago. She was a working photographer until she died this year at age 101. She published a ppage of photos every week in the Jackson paper. We used to go out together photographing wildlife and landscapes. When I got back to New York after Thanksgiving I went for a walk in Central Park and happened to wander into the Ramble. I had a eureka moment when I thought, my god, we have our own wilderness here! So I decided to start photographing it. I quickly realized that every hour of every day of every season presented new vistas–like a kaleidoscope. So I began returning to the same areas different times of year. Now, every time I go back I see photo opportunities that I wish I had had for the book. It would be tempting to do a sequel.

The Ramble is an amazing concept–a wilderness in the middle of Manhattan island. Of course there’s one big difference with Jackson Hole: no bear and moose. And while our rocky heights are thrilling to climb, they don’t match the Tetons.

Q. How does the Ramble change from season to season? What can tourists expect during the winter?

A. The differences between seasons are spectacular. I love the earliest days of spring with new buds and blossoms and the small light green leaves. One still gets the distant vistas through the trees then. Good for photography. In the summer visibility is limited and the shadows are dark and it becomes more difficult to compose interesting shots with the extreme contrasts in light. Fall is spectacular with amazing colors. Our printer once began desaturating the separation of a photo of Japanese Maple not believing such bright colors were possible. And being in the Ramble in a blizzard is a unique experience. When the snow is swirling down, and the views to the buildings of the skyline are blocked and the paths all hidden with fresh snow it’s very easy to get lost.

Q. Have there been any lingering effects of storm Sandy on the Ramble?

A. I haven’t been back in the Ramble since Sandy. But the early snowstorm last year (2011) destroyed many trees in the Ramble from the weight of the snow. During Sandy I was in Corfu for the opening of an exhibition of my photos. We had a big storm which cut off power. The opening was scheduled for after dark. The U.S. Ambassador had come, and the number two in the Chinese Embassy. There was no auxillary power so we were getting very anxious. Fortunately power was restored two hours before the opening.

Q. What aspects of the Ramble’s geology, flora, and fauna amaze you the most?

A. The history of the flora is very interesting, with useful non-native plants introduced by early settlers, then decorative non-native plants introduced for aesthetic reasons, and now a return to native plants after it was discovered that some of the non-native plants were taking over! For me the geology is really extraordinary, with the massive boulders dropped by the glaciers as they melted. I know of no other place with so many outcroppings of bedrock that have been so beautifully polished by the rocks held in the ice. There is also the mysterious channel carved in the rock. I think I finally figured it out this summer after seeing similar channels carved in bedrock on the island of Ithaka. They were to collect water from rain.

Images by Robert McCabe. All rights reserved. Click here to purchase a copy of The Ramble in Central Park, published by Abbeville Press.