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Backyard Gardens in Stereo

Trailing a stereoscopic 3-D photographer through the secret spaces of Brooklyn.

Greg Dinkins is fascinated with the backyard gardens of Brooklyn. He is enthralled by those secret spaces you can’t see from the street and which lie behind the interlocked procession of brownstones. He is also a stereoscopic (3-D) photographer who has been taking photos of other peoples’ backyards for over twenty years.

Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.
Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.

I saw a presentation of his shots in a Clinton Hill church gymnasium to promote the neighborhood’s Garden Walk this past summer. A roomful of people in 3-D glasses sat transfixed by the images projected on the screen. “Oohs” and “Aahs” were elicited with each new image. After the show, I arranged to meet Greg in June, on the day of the walk.

The sun rose that day with a vengeance. By 10:00 a.m., the mercury had climbed to 90 degrees with the forecast calling for a heat index of over 100. Already dripping with sweat, I trudged from my apartment to a home on Hall Street belonging to Ragnar Naess and David Charles, where I had agreed to meet Greg. Outside, their home looked like a typical brick row house, but inside was a live/work space with an expansive pottery studio. Past a large workbench was the back door, and once I walked through it, I was teleported to a place that could not have been Brooklyn.

Ragnar and David’s garden is a botanical Eden that stretches the width of two houses and the length of an entire city block. There are several small ecosystems within. In one area a jungle of 40-foot bamboo trees tower over ferns and climbing hydrangea; in another, prickly pear and other succulents give the feel of a miniature Sonoran Desert. There is a water system underneath the entire garden, and along the stone path, a reflecting pond was under construction.

Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.
Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.

I found Greg near the wall of bamboo marveling at a hosta of prehistoric proportions. With him was Jennifer Fiore, a photographer from the neighborhood who volunteered to help Greg with his gear. He was dressed in a polo shirt and shorts, a tall man of medium build with thin brown hair and Windex-blue eyes that always seem to be searching for visual subject matter. I followed Greg as he traversed the garden scanning for his next photograph, holding his digital 3-D camera out in front of him like a scientist taking measurements. Greg’s camera is actually two Canon PowerShot SD1000 cameras fitted inside a steel housing that Greg constructed himself. The lenses of the cameras are set about 2.5 inches apart—the same width as human eyes. To achieve the 3-D effect, a stereoscopic photo consists projecting two photo slides, shot simultaneously with polarizing filters. To sync the camera’s shutters, Greg rigged a master shutter button attached to the camera’s USB port. The real magic of this system, Greg said, is an open-source freeware application called Stereo Data Maker (SDM), which is stored on the cameras’ memory cards. “The software has made shooting 3-D infinitely easier,” he said. In addition to this camera, Greg also brought a hand-made German 3-D model called RBT. He switched back and forth between them, stopping often to compose the next shot in his head.

How Greg chose the subjects of his photographs was mysterious. He would pass by plants or groups of vegetation that seemed perfect for 3-D in favor of less-obvious compositions. When I asked him how he decides which plants and people to shoot, he replied “It’s all about re-creating space, composing a shot for stereo instead of 2-D.” He is unabashed about shooting people in the garden environment. He does not ask permission, and with his kind face and child-like enthusiasm, he doesn’t have to. People are drawn to his strange photographic contraption. More than once, I saw a proud smile creep across his face when a curious passerby stopped to ask about the device he was wielding.

Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.
Photo courtesy of Greg Dinkins/Erik Rhey.

Greg has been shooting 3-D and macrophotography for over twenty years and works as an editor at the Micropaleontology Press. Although he lives in West Harlem, he satisfies his own love of gardening at his summer home in Delaware County, New York. He started shooting Brooklyn gardens through his friendship with Alison Karasz, whose garden on Cumberland Street was part of the day’s tour. Since shooting the tour last year, he said he has made more friends in the neighborhood and finds himself increasingly riding the C train into Brooklyn for social events. Recently, Greg helped in the shooting of Bjork’s 3-D music video “Wanderlust.”

The next stop was the home of Jean Murley and Joel Griffin. Their garden is in a shared backyard on Ryerson Street next to Cara Murray and Enrique Lanz. Both gardens are a bushy array of wildflowers (including foxglove, peonies, and pink poppies) and herbs. We chatted for almost an hour with Cara, Jean, and Joel, finding relief from the heat in the shade of a blooming catalpa tree.

As we visited more gardens, I began to understand Greg’s fascination with these spaces. Each was completely different from the previous one. Some were wild and overgrown, and others, like Chris Duffy’s in Fort Greene, were sparse, decorated with the reclaimed detritus of the neighborhood, such as glass bottles and pottery shards. And then there was the garden of Keith and Jane Zusi Flanders, which I nicknamed “the living room.” This space consisted of pristine paved brick throughout with planters along the sides, a large plant bed in the back, a Persian rug on the floor, and a wood dining table. Because of the heavy canopy of trees overhead, Jane said that the motif of her garden was low-light plants that displayed “the many different shades and shapes of green.”

Another garden, owned by Donald Matheson, had a minimalist Japanese Zen vibe, with pea gravel, square planters, and a wooden plank walkway festooned on either side with long rectangular ponds. It looked like a high-end resort hotel, and I half-expected a waiter to appear to take our drink order. Over the course of the day, I learned that you never know what you will find in the backyard from looking at the front door. A somewhat-dilapidated house will disguise a beautiful pastoral landscape shrunken and boxed-in like a living diorama while a regal brownstone might camouflage a backyard filled with weeds, trash, and old tires. Gardens seemed to be an extension of their owner’s personality, revealing an inner desire to either fetishize outdoor space or let nature reclaim it.

We ended the tour in Prospect Heights after 5:00. Greg showed impressive determination despite the profane summer heat. He is over ten years my senior, and he would not stop until we saw almost every garden on the tour. I, on the other hand, probably would have submitted hours earlier and escaped to an air-conditioned bar.

We made our way back along Dean Street, past the chaos of rubble and chain-link fences that cordoned off demolition anticipating the Atlantic Yards project. There were no trees along the sidewalk to offer respite from the asphalt sauna. Both our shirts had long surpassed the saturation point of sweat. In a fatigued mumble, I asked Greg if he had had a good day. He turned to me, his blue eyes still alight, and said, “This is heaven to me.”


Erik Rhey

Erik Rhey is a journalist and fiction writer originally from Wisconsin. He is a senior editor at PC Magazine and teaches writing at NYU and the Gotham Writers? Workshop. He lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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