Throughout its existence, Prospect Park’s fate has mirrored that of the city, rising and falling with the economic tides, eventually being designated a New York City Historic Landmark in 1975 and listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Most, knowing little of its extraordinary history, simply partaking in the pleasures of an oasis nestled inside the eye of the storm, a quiet escape from the madness that churns in the streets beyond its walls.
“I came to New York like millions of others, lured by a city pulsing with possibilities, where it’s not who you are or where you’re from but what you work to become,” writes Russia-born, America-raised photographer Irina Rozovsky in her book, In Plain Air (MACK), a collection of lyrical photographs made in Prospect Park between 2011–2020.
Some 17,000 years ago, Brooklyn’s luminous Prospect Park took shape as the Wisconsin Glacier receded, leaving a string of hills, kettles, and plains in its wake. At the very northeastern tip, Mount Prospect took shape, forming one of the tallest hills in Brooklyn, rising some 200 feet about sea level and providing its own private oasis just a few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
During her first scorching summer in the city, where the air is so thick from pollution and humidity, it starts to bend light, Rozovsky escapes to the park where she can breathe easily among the trees and grass.
“Someone in heaven must have sketched the panorama stretching before me: people at rest, tucked into nooks and crannies. In each pocket is a different group or family, lovers, friends, different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, religions, all sharing the same place, the same lazy instant. This kaleidoscope, so serene and sublime, feels almost unreal, like a mirage,” she writes.
“To make sure it’s true, I take a picture. Is it the light bouncing off the lake or a certain peace that glows on every face? A humanity that’s easy and palpable pulls down our guards. There are no doors to lock, no walls that separate, nothing to own. If paradise can be littered with soda cans and cigarette butts, then here it is.”
Not quite what Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux imagined when they began working developing Prospect Park in February 1866. The masterminds behind the massive “urban renewal” program known as Central Park — which infamously displaced Black communities to make way for the nation’s first landscaped park — got the nod and were invited to do the same in Brooklyn to attract wealthy residents.
Together, they landscaped some 526 acres until the Panic of 1873, which brought about the Long Depression over the next two decades. By that time the city of Brooklyn spent $9 million to acquire and built the park. Over the next 150 years, Prospect Park would become the heart of central Brooklyn, home to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Central Library, and the Brooklyn Museum in due course. In time it would boast a boathouse, bandshell, and zoo.
Brought together for In Plain Air, Rozovsky’s photographs read as an ode to a space where time stops, as the pressures of the infernal grind come to an end, and New Yorkers of every stripe are free to feel human again. These images, made all year round, offer a glimpse into the space where the public and private converge.
In these simple moments of leisure set amid nature where nothing and no one makes any demands of our minds, our bodies, and our time, New Yorkers find repose in the crook of a tree, a grassy knoll, or the water’s edge, and just simply be free. Whatever lurks and lingers beyond the park is momentarily of no concern — a vital reminder that simply being in nature has restorative powers all its own.