By Denise Taylor
One basketball hoop stands alone before a vast cornfield. The next pops up unexpectedly in a forest, its rim slapped onto a sheet of plywood and nailed to two trees. Another sturdy hoop abuts a stone bomb shelter in Israel, the backboard's white rectangle echoed in the shape of warning sirens tucked into nearby trees.
For the past five years, Newton photographer David S. Greenfield has turned his lens on a cultural icon that he says "cuts across all strata" - the basketball hoop. It's a simple theme, but in his solo show, "Hoopla: Basketball Rims Are Everywhere!" which opens Tuesday at the Newton Free Library, Greenfield captures more than metal rings and backboards. His striking black-and-white and color images kick up that easy sense of hope and unity that erupts on so many basketball courts. At the same time, they telegraph the simple beauty of one net and one rim.
For all its import, though, this is a project born of quick talking. "We were on vacation in New Hampshire and I noticed that along this country road beside a lumber mill there was a pretty rustic hoop set up," said Greenfield. "It caught my eye. If I'd had my camera, I would have shot it. The seed was planted there."
Soon afterward, Greenfield spotted another makeshift hoop at a construction site. This time he did hop out to photograph it. But when approached by an intimidating equipment operator, he winged his response.
"I told him, 'I'm working on a project to take pictures of hoops in interesting and unusual locations,' " writes Greenfield in an account of the image. "A light bulb then went off in my head! Although the 'Hoop Project' answer I gave was a quick-thinking, fabricated-on-the-fly response, it had sticking power."
In the years since, Greenfield has photographed hoops across America as well as in the Middle East. He's talked his way into shooting hoops in suburban backyards, caught a game aboard a ship in Alaskan waters, and returned to New York to capture the courts of his boyhood.
"I like to take the ordinary and see it or photograph it so that it's extraordinary," said Greenfield. "The hoop, as ordinary as it may be, and common, and as run-down as it may be, it doesn't change the fact that in the right setting and the right light and the right composition, it can be an extraordinarily interesting and beautiful thing.
"But I also get a kick out of looking where they are and how they are jerry-rigged. Even if you don't have a fancy fiberglass backboard and a nice hardwood gym, people will improvise. It's the draw of the game. People like to put the ball in the hoop."
A periodontist by profession, Greenfield, 62, has played basketball since his youth, and can still be found at pickup games at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton.
"You go anywhere there's a pickup game, you wait your turn, you get in the game, and you don't know anything about these people, and yet you can meld," he said. "It's a great unifier."
Like his subject, Greenfield's tools are simple. "I'm not a big equipment person," he said. "Most of these images are digital. I use one camera and a short-range zoom lens to get some wide-angle perspective and a short telephoto. That's what I work with."
For sentimental reasons, Greenfield's camera is a Leica, the same brand used by his father. A Holocaust survivor, Joseph Greenfield had been mentored by an uncle who was a professional portrait photographer in Poland before the war.
"He learned some basic things and then was completely cut off from it for five years during the war, when he was in different types of labor and concentration camps," said Greenfield. "After the war, he was liberated and was in a displaced persons camp, and cameras were cheap then. Food was dear. Cameras were not. So he obtained a 35mm Leica and took pictures of life in the DP camps."
Those images are in the archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But for Greenfield, growing up, they were more than pictures or a historical record. They took the place of family.
"Both of my parents are Holocaust survivors, and since there was little family left, the photographs were sort of a connection for me to learn a little bit about where we came from," he said. "My house was filled with them. We had shoeboxes filled with them. I think the genetic connection, if you will, to photography started about there. I didn't have much family, but I had all these little black-and-white photographs with the crinkled edges. So photography is not just something I picked up."
Under his father's guidance, Greenfield began shooting photographs in high school. In college, he became photo editor of his campus newspaper and yearbook. After graduating, the art remained a fervent hobby.
"Photography was really part of my being and it just never left," he said. "But 20 years ago, I decided when I was 40 that this was not just something to kick around. So I got more serious. I did more formal printing and began to put together exhibits."
Venues that have displayed his photographs include the ARTSWorcester Gallery, the Boston Public Library, and the French Library and Cultural Center in Boston. Lately, Greenfield's focus has been on his new grandson. But the Hoop Project and other series will go on.
"I'm always looking for the interesting shot and the interesting composition. I'll always do that. That will never leave me."
The "Hoopla: Basketball Rims Are Everywhere!" exhibition of David S. Greenfield photographs opens Tuesday (Feb. 3) and continues through Feb. 26 at Newton Free Library, 330 Homer St. There is an opening reception at 7 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 5). Free. 617-796-1360.
You can see more of David Greenfield's photos on his fotoVisions site.
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