Photo: Legs in Photo Booth, 1974. © Harvey Stein 2011.
Located on the farthest reaches of Brooklyn before it falls into the sea, Coney Island epitomizes the soul of New York. Nearly one hundred years ago, developers envisioned it as a seaside escape from the hustle and bustle of the Manhattan machine. By the end of the century, it was home to the largest amusement park in the entire United States, celebrated for the legendary Cyclone rollercoaster and the iconic Wonder Wheel.
By the 1970s, the area had fallen into disrepair, as much of the New York had been willfully abandoned by the state and Federal governments under the policy of “benign neglect,” foisting the city on to the brink of bankruptcy. It was during this period that Harvey Stein first began taking photographs on the beach and the boardwalk, documenting the magnificent spirit of the people who persevered against the odds.
For the next forty years, Stein continued to shoot, creating a body of work captured in his book, Coney Island: 40 Years (Schiffer). Now a selection of this incredible collection is on view in Beach Season, an exhibition featuring the photographs of Stein along with the hyperrealistic sculptures of Carole Feuerman at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, Michigan, through September 10, 2017.
Stein’s work is a love letter to his hometown celebrating the people who have made New York the most original, innovative, iconoclastic places anywhere on earth. Whether taking in the sun or cavorting on the beach, enjoying the amusement park or the Mermaid Parade, strolling the boardwalk or simply taking a moment to one’s self, the people in Stein’s photos are about this life, fully present in the moment and frozen in time for eternity.
Stein chose to photograph in black and white, “to reveal Coney Island in its more moody and evocative moments; to capture history, the past, nostalgia, and memories.”
The choice of black and white also places the work squarely in the tradition of street photography, although there are no streets to be found. Instead, Stein shows us that it is not what is underfoot that matters so much as one’s approach. “The paradox of photography is that while it is not very difficult to do with today’s technology, the more you do it, the harder it gets,” the artist reveals. “As you progress, you want and expect more, you strive to improve and make stronger images.”
Yet, despite the 40-year gap between the first and last images the artist has produced, there is a sense of continuity, not only in the work but also in the city itself. It has been said that the more things change, the more they stay the same—which is a testament to the essence of human nature and the ways in which we operate.
The very best art embodies this idea: that it is both an object of its time and a timeless entity. The greatest artists imbue their work with a depth of understanding and wisdom about the nature of life itself. It captures both the specific and the universal, creating a bridge between the artist, the subject, and the viewer in such a way that it both shows us the foreign and familiar in a profound and evocative way.
The beauty of Stein’s Coney Island photographs is the way in which they endure, like the very people themselves, speaking not only to our nostalgia for the past but to our dreams for the future. We all wish to have a moment to slip away and forget ourselves, to have fun in the sun and be a kid again. Stein reminds us that Coney Island is not only a place: it is a state of mind. Beach Season invites us to rejoice in the carefree joys of life.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.