For decades, Larry Lederman, 77, was one of the busiest corporate and mergers and acquisitions lawyers in the country, shaping major developments in corporate law such as “leveraged recapitalization” technique. He was chairman of the global corporate practice at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy for 14 years and a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz for 17 years before that. The Brooklyn College and New York University School of Law graduate wrote a book about his experiences, “Tombstones: A Lawyer’s Tales From the Takeover Decades” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 1992).
These days, however, his passions have led him far from corporate boardrooms. Now of counsel at Milbank, Lederman has become an accomplished landscape photographer and spends much of his time at the Bronx Botanical Garden, where he is a member of the board of advisers. His photographs are the centerpiece of the just-published “Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden (Monacelli/New York Botanical Garden, $50).
A National Historic Landmark, the Garden’s 250 acres is home to 30,000 trees. Lederman has returned to the Garden again and again to allow the trees to pose for his camera. According to a Dec. 2 review in the New York Times Book Review, Lederman “has teased out the shyer sorts, celebrated the big shots and altogether captured their charm, sass and elegance.”
Q: What was your legal practice like? Did you have time for other activities?
A: I did mergers and proxy fights and change-of-control transactions. It was very adversarial and demanding, requiring much weekend work. I had little time for other activities. Even as I became very senior, the work was very hands on and demanded individual attention.
All that being said, I took time to write the book “Tombstones,” and I continued to write for a number of years. The benefit of writing was that I could do it early in the morning and late at night. “Tombstones” took four years to write. I was never afraid to take on long-term projects. Indeed, I liked them since most of my work was of short-term duration, a few months, possibly a year in some cases.
Q: Why did you take up photography?
A: I took up photography in about 2000, at least five or six years before I cut back my work at the firm. It was more difficult to do than writing because it required daylight, which meant photographing on the weekend, mainly early in the morning at first light. It was not until the end of 2008 that I extracted myself from daily practice.
Q: How much of your time do you devote to photography now?
A: I continue to teach law, at New York Law for the past six years or so and before that at the New York University School of Law for 25 years. I am also on the panel of neutrals for the American Arbitration Association and take complex commercial transactions. The rest of my time is devoted to photography, which is now a full-time job. I am working on two books and have two exhibits of my work currently running and have schedules for exhibits through 2015.
Q: How did you learn how to take photographs? Do you have any formal training?
A: I am self taught. I started with film, mainly black and white and color slides, and found that I did not have much control of the process, especially with color. I embraced digital imaging very early and taught myself how to use all the programs and the computer. It is important to note, however, that the computer and Photoshop and the like are not as important as the camera, and the camera is not as important as your vision and point of view, which people call style or voice.
I started with trees because their beauty drew me to photography and made me want to learn to use the camera. I felt that it was too late to learn how to draw, although I have now taken up drawing.
Q: Do you take photographs of anything but trees?
A: I photograph landscapes, not just trees. Indeed, for the past five years or so I have been involved in a project for the Olana Partnership which manages the home and studio of Frederic Church, the great Hudson River School painter. I have been taking photographs in the footsteps of Church, not merely photographing the sites but also expressing a 21st century vision, which shows the fragility of the sites. There was a show of my work at the Coachman’s House at Olana in 2010. The work includes a series of photographs of Maine, Niagara and the icebergs of Newfoundland.
These projects have taught me a lot about art history. And the work with gardens has taught me a lot about garden history and design. These are areas in which I have no formal education but have been educating myself. I find learning delightful.
Q: Whose idea was it to produce a book about the trees of the Botanical Garden?
A: It was the Botanical Garden’s. I had been photographing the trees for many years, and they had been producing calendars of the work since 2003. The calendars sold well, and the Garden had no book showing its vast collection of landscapes and its numerous varieties of trees, so it came to me and asked me if I would be interested in doing one.
Q: How many pictures did you take? How many are in the book?
A: I probably have more than 10,000 photographs from which I made a rough selection to give the Garden a range of choices. I gave the Garden about 1,200 photographs in all seasons. About 250 were chosen. Of those, a show of 18 photographs will be open until April 14 at the Garden’s Ross Gallery. Further, a show of six photographs at the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram’s Building, will be open until year end. The photographs in the two shows are very large, some as large as 60 x 90 inches.
Q: How did you decide which ones to use? What message were you trying to convey to the reader?
A: The decision process for the book is a little different from the shows. The book is committed to show the beauty of the trees, but also their diversity. The shows capture elegance and beauty and originality, images that no one has ever seen before, which will spark interest in the photography and in the trees and in the Botanical Garden. The photographs are for sale at the show and all the proceeds go to the Garden.
Two of Larry Lederman’s photographs from “Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden”
Courtesy of Larry Lederman
Q: What makes the trees in the Garden distinctive?
A: The Garden has about six separate gardens with many groves of different kinds of trees. For example, there is a large grove of magnolias, which are very beautiful in the spring because of their abundance of flowers and in the winter because of their finely wrought shapes.
There is a large grove of maples that are very beautiful in the spring when they first leaf and in the fall when they are ripe with the color of their changing leaves.
There is an allée of tulip trees about 100 years old, and they are beautiful all year because they are majestic. In the spring, they show yellow and orange and green flowers. In the summer, they cast a wonderful shade that eases the glare of the sun. In the winter they are elegant.
There is always activity. Knowing where to go on any day depends on experience, from following interesting trees that attract attention. These trees have neighbors that they share the light with and depend upon in windy and stormy weather. You get to know them and their companions. At the right time they dress up for you and show themselves in startling ways. When they attract my attention, I photograph them and show their relation with the trees around them.
Q: Do you have particular favorites, trees you return to again and again?
A: Of course, and I follow them all year for six to eight seasons, not merely four because everything changes day to day, and the beginning of a season is much different from the end. It is often difficult to tell when real changes will take place. You have to be alert and sensitive to change. Having favorites helps increase sensitivity.
There is something about my favorites that is unusual and attractive and expressive. Their expressiveness comes from where they are in terms of the soil they are growing in, the wind they bear and the amount of light they get and when they get it. Their survival is expressed in the way the trunk and the branches meet the sun and the way the leaves and flowers look. Some trees are mere survivors, others are elegant, always joyous. It is all there if you take the time to stand still and look.
Q: What separates a good photograph from a “pretty picture”?
A: Presentation of the subject matter that captures the viewer’s attention and that is original and thought-provoking makes a good photograph. Picture postcards are interesting, but they reflect a common denominator that is not art.
Q: What advice would you offer to the aspiring photographer?
A: The best way to take a good photograph is to know the subject matter very well and take it many times in different light and different seasons and times. There is no short cut. It is hard work. The camera takes the photograph but you decide what to take. The camera is not anywhere as important as the eye of the photographer.
Q: How did the trees of the Garden fare during Hurricane Sandy?
A: The storm was quite bad for the Garden. They lost more than 100 trees in the native forest, including three oaks that were healthy 300-year-old trees that were totally destroyed. And there was damage to many of the conifers.
@| Jeff Storey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.