Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Coney Island, Through the Photographer's Lens

Like generations of New Yorkers and tourists before me, I made my annual summer pilgrimage to the Coney Island Boardwalk two weeks ago to eat a hot dog at Nathan’s, smell the salty air and take in the sights.

Steven Harrington, Wonder Wheel, 2012

Coney Island didn’t always look the way it does today, though. In the same way that historians at the Tenement Museum use photographs to re-construct apartments at 97 Orchard Street, we can use photos to learn about the Coney Island of the past.

Jacob A. Riis, Playing by the Water, 1895
Image courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis, one of the pioneering social activists of the mid-nineteenth century, took this image of children playing at the Coney Island beach in 1895.  At the time this photograph was taken, cameras were heavy and required cumbersome equipment, like the detachable flash--which had only recently come to the United States from Germany.  But on his trip to Coney Island, Riis could do without the flash and other components, relying on the natural light of a sunny day at the beach. 

The image’s clarity and suffusion of light is notably different from Riis’s better known images, those of tenement life.  However, like in his photos of the tenements, the children seem unaware or disinterested in the photographer in their midst, concentrating on collecting driftwood and splashing in the waves.

The children’s modest beach attire is a stark contrast to the scantily clad figures captured by another famous portrait photographer, Diane Arbus, sixty years later.  Like Riis, Arbus was interested in capturing ordinary people, often those who were socially marginalized, in ordinary moments.  Arbus, however, focused on capturing and analyzing her subjects’ psychological states.

Diane Arbus, Two Girls in Matching Bathing Suits, Coney Island, N.Y., 1967
Image courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Photography
In this image, “Two Girls in Matching Bath Suits,” from 1967, the girls’ shared bathing suit accentuates their different attitude towards Arbus as photographer, and us as the viewer.  The girl in the left of the frame faces the camera head on, tilting her head coyly, while the girl at the right turns her body away from the camera lens, pursing her lips in contrast to her companion’s slight smile.  These young women, unlike the children in Riis’s photo, are aware of the photographer’s presence—and are clearly responding to it. 

Two of Arbus’s more well-known images are currently on display in the Naked Before the Camera exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Images like Arbus’s and Riis’s inform historians’ understandings of not only what places like Coney Island looked like but also the attitudes of people at that time towards their environments and the arts.

-- Posted by Hilary Whitham

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