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December 16, 2018

As Coney Faces Change, Arts Venues Rush To Exhibit Photos of Amusement Area
by Harold Egeln (, published online 02-25-2008
Brooklyn Museum Leads With Show: ‘Goodbye, Coney Island?’

By Henry Stewart
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
CONEY ISLAND — As residents, developers and the city duke it out over Coney Island’s future, artists, curators and editors are looking back to its past.

Photographs of the storied amusement area, showing the neighborhood both as it is and once was, are on display across the city in museums, bars, galleries and on the pages of magazines.

“It’s an excellent time to revisit the history,” said Patrick Amsellem, the associate curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum and organizer of the show, “Goodbye, Coney Island?” running through early April.

With its legendarily colorful characters and locales, Coney Island has been a favorite subject for photographers since its establishment as an entertainment area in the late 19th Century.

But the area has been in a steady state of decline after hitting its peak in the years after World War II. “I’m seeing Coney Island at its low point,” said Deborah Matlack, a part-time professional photographer whose shots of the neighborhood are on display at Park Slope’s Patio Lounge through early March. As the neighborhood has changed, so too has the way in which artists photograph it. Where they once tried to capture its present, now, they try to capture its past.

At the Brooklyn Museum, the photographs of Coney Island from the first three-quarters of the 20th Century generally focus more on people than place. The neighborhood lured photographers not only with its striking architecture but because it had crowds larger than anywhere else nearby, Amsellem said. It was a liberating place where people could be found acting out and enjoying themselves.

“Coney Island has attracted photographers all along,” said Amsellem. “You could always capture something interesting, something fun.”

But today, much of Coney Island looks less like a place people go to than a place people once went, an area where vacant lots and decrepit buildings are as common as the seagulls scavenging the shore. “I gotta document this place as best I can before it’s gone for good,” Matlack said.

Many of the contemporary photographs in Matlack’s show, as well as those in Anna Sawaryn’s “Coney Island Through the Invisible Lens,” which was at the East Village’s 4th Street Photo Gallery until Feb. 15, and those by Robert Polidori in the Feb. 18 issue of The New Yorker, feature architecture — some kitschy, some decayed — more than people, the vestiges of a once-thriving entertainment Mecca.

“The beauty in the ruin,” as Amsellem described it. “That sort of poetry.”

In addition to the usual photographs of bright lights and familiar landmarks — Astroland, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Famous — the photos in Matlack’s show capture the “ghost ships” of Coney Island Creek and the neighborhood in the winter, when the beach and boardwalk are desolate and blanketed in snow.

“There’s a loneliness about the place that appeals to me,” Matlack said.

Sawaryn’s show presented a similar sense of place as Matlack’s. Using an old-fashioned camera that was more en vogue in the 19th Century, her photographs have a hazy and milky texture that gives them a nostalgic glaze.

Arguably even more than the historical photographs on display at the Brooklyn Museum, Sawaryn’s photographs capture the “ghosts” of Coney Island, the neighborhood’s ineffable aura, that Coneyphiles fear could be lost in the upcoming redevelopment.

Because her camera requires a long exposure time, Sawaryn’s photographs emphasize the neighborhood’s haunted quality by turning people into translucent blurs.

With little to attract photographers anymore save its ghosts, Coney Island seems in danger of being overwhelmed by its own fading legend. One of Robert Polidori’s photographs in The New Yorker highlights this by featuring an encroaching fog that looks as though it’s swallowing people as they walk down the boardwalk.

But Amsellem noted that Coney has always been evolving, a place of constant change. He remains optimistic about the neighborhood’s future.

“Hopefully, it will not disappear,” he said, “but be transformed.”

© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2008
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