Woman with Downcast Eyes, 2008 ©Harvey Stein 2011
The Hug; Eyes Closed and Smile, 1982 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Smiling Woman, 2009 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Twirling a Hula-Hoop, 2007 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Woman in Striped Shirt, 1982 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Coney Island is a world unto itself. It is a time and place that exists independent of everything else. Situated where South Brooklyn meets the Atlantic Ocean, it is an urban fantasy of beachfront life. It is equal parts escapism and entertainment, strange and seedy and strikingly American at its core. It is a fantasy world of populist delight: rides, games, and half-naked girls.
Harvey Stein has been photographing life in this inimitable stretch of land since 1970 and the result is Coney Island: 40 Years 1970–2010 (Schiffer), and it features a carefully curated selection of images that take us there. From the boardwalk and the pier to the amusements and the Mermaid Parade to the workers and the beach, Stein’s photographs take all that is original and iconoclastic about Coney Island and puts them in arm’s reach.
While Coney Island is available to all, it is home to Brooklynites. It is a place that breeds its own kind of people and attracts them in kind. It has a “you tawkin to me?” kinda vibe that allows its denizens to live in the public eye with a kind of shameless nakedness of spirit that makes its inhabitants unlike any other. It attracts exhibitionists and voyeurs, the people themselves being the greatest part of the show. And whether they are participating or simply kicking back, they make for what, in Stein’s eye, is undoubtedly, a memorable photo opp.
There is a spirit of love and acceptance that surrounds this neighborhood, and part of that comes from being a place for escape—what goes on in Coney Island stays there. There is an urban edge to this slice of paradise, a way in which the bright sun casts a long shadow and there is a sense of something else lurking within this distinctive world. It is that the stress of New York is not quite forgotten but simply put aside, and it lingers and it floats and it makes one wonder just who these people are. How did they get here and how did they get this way? Stein’s photographs do not provide answers so much as they provoke question after question with each turn of the page.
Mr. Stein observes, "Coney Island is about people, it's the people that intrigue me and what I am always drawn to photograph. All sizes, shapes, races, ages, religions, behaviors. The amusements, the sea, the open air, the sun and the sand all impart a kind of freedom of behavior that I don't see anywhere else. And I am interested in the contradictions and ironies present in its social world. I am always impressed with how we all get along at Coney Island.
“I first went to Coney Island when I was about 11 or 12 in the late 1950's with my parents while visiting New York. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA where we had and still have a wonderful amusement park, Kennywood Park. I was astonished by Coney Island on that first visit, it was very crowded, the parachute jump was working and looked very scary, and i saw an old lady on it. I thought if she could ride on it, I could also and I did. I saw two sailors fighting on the boardwalk, I never saw a fight before that, and it also was scary but exciting. So as an impressionable young person, I always wanted to return. “I first brought a camera to Coney Island in 1970 and took a photograph of a very skinny man wearing a bow tie and with a book on his lap while he was sitting on a railing on the pier. It was published in Life Magazine, the first image I ever had published. It helped to start me on my long and wonderful love affair with photography.
“My first teacher in photography was Ben Fernandez in the early 1970s. He told me to get a Leica with a 21mm lens and go to Coney Island to photograph. I did, again and again and again, and still do.What I find appealing about it and why I continue to return is the people. All kinds of people, young, old, skinny, fat, beautiful, ugly, white, brown, black, on and on. There is great energy and fun always at Coney Island, the place is infectious and grows on your mind and psychic. A really amazing place to photograph. “At Coney Island, people are generally friendly and receptive to being photographed. I try to photograph people with their permission, not candidly, that is what makes my work different from most street photographers. I am interested in our interaction and brief moments together. I call this a confrontational/collaborative approach. Confrontational since I am in their space, collaborative since I am speaking and relating to them and getting them to participate in the image making. I'd say at least 80% of the people I approach at Coney say yes, in Manhattan it's closer to 50% or so. I use only wide angle lenses, my long lens is a 35mm, so that means I have to be close to make a successful photograph. “I'd say the best thing about shooting in Coney Island are the people, the great variety and energy of the people. And the changing environment. There are always new rides, new structures, and the disappearance of old ones (whether because of so called progress and things are torn down, fire, repair, etc, etc.).
“The structures and rides have changed greatly in Coney Island, especially since 2008. When I photographed there from 1970 to the mid 90's, Coney Island could be dangerous, especially at night. It was run down and decaying. Now with new rides and a new pier and revamped boardwalk, it is experiencing a resurgence. It's becoming family friendly, the beach has been improved, you can't go under the boardwalk any longer (lots of crime there); it's much safer and restored. As a result, there are lots of young people visiting Coney, the old regulars and characters are being pushed out, and it's becoming a haven again for the masses.
“Not much is the same except the good air, the views and beautiful sunsets, and importantly, still the variety of people. There continues to be some funky spots and rides, but I fear that will disappear soon, within the next few years. I think Coney Island and it's resurgence can be seen as a metaphor for the gentrifying of Brooklyn and New York and America. It's a place that is now providing tax revenues for the city, is attracting a more upscale clientele, or will so in the future, and increasingly only middle class people and beyond can afford the cost of the rides and the food. But thankfully, the air and beach and boardwalk will remain free.“I prefer shooting during late afternoon and early evening, the changeover from daylight to twilight is always interesting. But I've been there at 6am, noon, early afternoon to shoot also. In the summer these days, it's always crowded, sometimes too crowded during the weekend since I like to shoot one or two people, I like to isolate my subject and deal with them and their environment without too many background distractions.
“I've brought my students from the International Center of Photography to Coney Island since I began teaching there in 1976 and still do. I can get a call or email from a former student who I taught in 1985 and he's say he still remembers the class visit to Coney as one of the most memorable things he's done. I'd say I've taken over 1200 students to Coney Island over the last 40 years.
“I love going back to the same places to visit and photograph. Of course, I also want to go to new places and I do, but there is a fascination about continuing to mine the same turf, the same places to see how it has been changed by time. Photography (video, cinema) like no other art form shows the passage of time.
"As a kid, I saw photos of my grandmother when she was young and I was amazed by how different she looked and whether that could be the same person. We are all engulfed and even worried by the passage of time and aging and changing and eventually disappearing. Photography encompasses all this yet freezes time to allow us to remember and see the past that we forgot. So I go back to the same places, whether it's in Mexico or Italy or India or New York. I go to the same corner in midtown Manhattan to photograph (some of the results will be included in my next book).
“Time, place and photography all fascinate me and I can say they totally inform my life. So I've done photo projects that have lasted 40 years, 27 years, 10 years, 6 years. I specialize in long term projects and prefer to dig deeply into a subject, over time, to increase my understanding of the subject and to show inevitable change. My book, Coney Island 40 Years was published in 2011 and included my photos made from 1970 though 2010. I am now working on Coney Island 50 Years with images between 1970-2020, coming out in 2021. That is, if I can last, which I will.”
Crowd Up Close, 2004 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Happy New Year Man, 2010 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Man Wearing Bow Tie, 1970 ©Harvey Stein 2011
The Happy Mermaid, 2010 ©Harvey Stein 2011
Black Hooded Man, 2009 ©Harvey Stein 2011