6sqft’s series The Urban Lens invites photographers to share work exploring a theme or a place within New York City. In this installment, NYC-based photographer Betsy Pinover Schiff shares photos from her new book, “‘Tis the Season New York.” Are you a photographer who’d like to see your work featured on The Urban Lens? Get in touch with us at [email protected].
Two years ago while attending for the first time the Winter’s Eve Festival, billed as the largest holiday festival in New York City, photographer Betsy Pinover Schiff had an ah-ha Christmas moment. If she, a native New Yorker, just recently learned about this huge annual celebration that draws thousands to Lincoln Square, what other Christmas celebrations was she missing? In a quest to find out, Betsy ended up taking hundreds of photos and attending hundreds of events across the city, all within a six-week period.
Her curiosity grew to become the basis of her latest book, “‘Tis the Season New York,” which was released this fall. Her book takes us on a tour of NYC during its most festive time of the year, from photos of the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue to the elaborately decorated homes of Dyker Heights. Plus, 15 different New Yorkers, ranging from philanthropist Agnes Gund to Betsy’s postman, provided their own NYC experiences for the book. Ahead, Betsy shares with 6sqft some of her sparkling photos and tells us how New York during Christmastime becomes a place for “fun, fantasy, and endless heartwarming moments.”
One of more than 250 uniquely decorated houses of Dyker Heights
A 15-foot revolving bear stands in the second-floor ballroom at the Russian Tea Room on 57th Street
How did you get your start in photography?
I was actually working at the New York Botanical Garden and was inspired by the beauty of the garden. And I had a fairly strong background in art, having minored in it in college. I had worked at Sotheby’s and I ran an art gallery on 57th Street for quite some time. I decided that I would relinquish my career in public relations and communication and try my hand at photography.
In doing public relations, I had always hired the photographer– architectural photographer, special event photographers, garden photographers. And thought that my eye would do well with this and started studying. So I started studying and I got gigs on the side and decided to focus on gardens and landscape architecture. I’ve been doing gardens and landscape architecture ever since. I’ve done five books on that subject, I’ve worked for the marketing needs of garden designers and landscape architects as well. This is my first departure in terms of subject matter for the book.
A trio of Victorian carolers sing in front of the Madison Avenue stores as part of the Miracle on Madison Avenue
Lexington Gardens features crafted seasonal dried flower arrangments and quirky home and garden gifts
What were some of the challenges of this project and how did it differ from your past work?
This was somewhat different in that much of it was at night. I was dealing with crowds. Also, in terms of pressure. There’s always pressure for photographers and in just about every kind of photography. But in terms of this one, there was really a six week period in which to accomplish the book, that I gave myself. A self-imposed six week period. Which is extremely tight to do all this photography that I had set out to do.
I probably went to 150 different locations, covering all of the neighborhoods of Manhattan and going to the boroughs as well. And it included both exteriors, as well as making the arrangements to shoot interiors.
The 43-foot tree in front of the Bloomberg Tower features 70,000 LED lights and 21 trees at its base
A procession of 13-foot-tall puppets called the Frost Giants make an appearance at the Winter’s Eve Festival in Lincoln Square
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
It actually happened two years ago, when just on a free evening I had read that there was a holiday festival on the West Side. I went over to walk around to see what was there and came across the Winter’s Eve Festival. It’s at Lincoln Square, from the Time Warner Center to 70th Street and its billed as the largest holiday festival in the city.
So when I went over there, I was bowled over by all of the planned activities that went on. The tree lighting in Dante Park, the street musicians, jazz musicians, there were 15-foot puppeteers that were parading about, there was an ice carving, and there was a holiday market across from Columbus Circle. It was just alive with celebration. And it got me thinking about what else I did not know in the city–and I am a native New Yorker–that was going on at Christmastime in New York.
Financial District’s Zuccotti Park gets decorated with thousands of white lights
The 9/11 Memorial and Oculus lit up in purple holiday lights
Did you know about these events or did you discover them as you were working on your project?
I did a lot of research on the internet and talked to a lot of people about what they have experienced. And I was rather amazed by how few people I personally knew who know New York at holiday time. They do very much what I had done, which is to visit store windows on Fifth Avenue or see the Rockefeller Center tree, but really, haven’t explored. So I took it upon myself to do that and it was a great adventure.
Paddy Maguire’s Ale House in Gramercy Park
Red and green lights from Madison Square Garden reflect on nearby cars
So what do you think makes New York City so special during the holidays?
It’s the decoration, the sense of celebration, of romance, of festivity, it’s the creativity. And it’s also the tranquility. You have all these moods that are more defined than in any other season. And I think that’s why you get an estimated five to six million tourists during this period of time.
The holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue now boast a high-tech light show that ends with a fireworks display on the roof
A 42-foot Christmas Tree sits in Gramercy Park, which opens its gates to the public only on Christmas Eve for caroling
After all your research and exploration, do you have a favorite NYC festivity?
I can’t say I have a favorite. I was given access by a number of restaurants, bars, private clubs, and pubs, around the city. My goodness, it would be hard to pick one.
I was also invited to celebrations and invited to photograph at a number of different kinds of celebrations, be it the winter solstice concert at the Church of St. John the Divine, or the Santa Claus gift-giving event for disadvantaged kids at the New York Foundling. The range was huge. I went to private parties as well, which I was able to photograph. So it’s very hard to pick one.
South Street Seaport is home to a 60-foot Norway spruce
Home to the Apollo Theatre and the Studio Museum of Harlem, 125th gets festive during the holiday season
Are there any festivities you’d recommend to someone who’s never experienced New York during the holidays?
If one is able to get tickets for the winter solstice concert at the Church of St. John the Divine, it’s superb. I would say if one can go to the Christmas Eve event which includes about 70 children and live animals, then the Christmas Eve ceremony at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. I think that if one can go to any of many or several restaurants that are superbly decorated over the holidays, that is a great thing to do.
Certainly seeing the best of New York’s Christmas trees, be it at Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, all of which have very unique Christmas trees. And then there are wonderful trees in many other locations, like in Gramercy Park or down at South Street Seaport. Going to a tree lighting can be great fun where there can be Christmas caroling, as there is in Carl Schurz Park on a special evening or in front of the Brick Church on Park Avenue.
Illuminated trees in Central Park’s Harlem Meer
A festive feast in the private club of the Sherry Netherland Hotel
There are quotes from New Yorkers throughout the book. How did you find people to contribute to your book?
Some of them I knew quite well having spent time with a number of nonprofit organizations. I started with those and then met some others that could offer very interesting quotes. So the range was from the very well known philanthropist and art patron Agnus Gund to the postman in my building, who has been a New York City postman for 30 years.
Do you have any projects coming up?
I need to take a break. But I’m eager to do a book of photographs of Mexico, I think I’ve spent a good deal of time there. And over a period of time, I’ve amassed a really wonderful body of work. So I may pursue that next.
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All images courtesy of Betsy Pinover Schiff