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Bronx photographer captures borough’s wilderness

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Master photographer Joel Meyerowtiz loves to remember his childhood in Soundview, back when horse-drawn wagons rumbled by to sell fruit and fresh fish. Indeed, Meyerowitz, 71, who trapped snakes and rabbits, felt like Huck Finn, he said. The Bronx River was his Mississippi.

So when Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe asked Meyerowitz, an award-winning photographer whose art has appeared in more than 350 international exhibitions, to document and celebrate the city’s parks in 2004, he was most thrilled to snap shots in the Bronx. His 70-plus photos of Bronx parks appear first in Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks, published this year.

“Westchester Avenue was my elevated stop.” Meyerowitz said. “The Bronx River ran through empty lots. There was a sense of freedom then.”

Meyerowitz’ vivid shots of Pelham Bay Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Riverdale Park, Seton Falls Park and the Bronx River reflect the mystery and natural beauty tucked into corners and pockets of the borough.

The photographer had never been to Rattlesnake Creek in Seton Falls Park and was astounded by how wild and remote it seemed. He snapped a photo of a hawk above the park. Benepe refers to the creek as “our Grand Canyon,” Meyerowitz said.

Meyerowitz played baseball as a child but studied art history at Ohio State University. He discovered photographer when he met the great Robert Frank. It was 1962 and he was 24 years old.

The photographer, who counts Benepe as a friend, wasn’t sure how to focus his Legacy work at first. But the rugged and unmanaged nature of many parks persuaded him to shot photos sure to evoke retreat or solitude, Meyerowitz said.

“You don’t need to go to Maine or the Adirondacks,” the former Orchard Beach lifeguard explained. “You can go to Pelham Bay Park and sit on the shoreline. You can make a day trip in the Bronx to hear birdsong and silence and return refreshed.”

Meyerowitz and his camera canoed the Bronx River more than once; he relished the experience. Although the river, newly clean thanks to Bronx conservationists, is often no more than eight inches deep, it reminded Meyerowtiz of his childhood. His favorite Legacy photo is one of the leafy and spackled Bronx River as it winds around a bend.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote the foreword for Legacy, available in stores and online, and on exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York through March 7.

Reach reporter Daniel Beekman at 718 742-3383 or dbeekman@cnglocal.com

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