During the entire two hours I was on the boardwalk this afternoon, a day after Thanksgiving, there was a man standing in the ocean, up to his shoulders maybe 90-100 feet from shore, wearing a big pair of yellow headphones and poking around the ocean floor with something on the end of a long pole. He barely shifted his position the entire time. So, what was he doing? Was he wielding some kind of metal detector, a not-too-uncommon site here. Doesn’t seem likely, though. Metal? Using an electronic device? 100 feet from shore and underwater,?; and not extending his search beyond a 5-square foot area? Was he clamming? Maybe, but he never seemed to bring the end of the pole out of the water. And does one generally go clamming in one spot, without moving around? And can you find clams a short distance off the Coney Island beach? I’m sure there’s a completely rational explanation. I just can’t imagine what it is.
If you’ve recently misplaced your photographer, you might want to look in Coney Island. They’re all here. With almost everything closed and strolling visitors down to a hearty few, the camera toters have the place to themselves - not necessarily a good thing if you’re looking to capture “scenes from a bench.” But apparently Coney Island does offer photographers - professional, aspiring and selfie takers alike – an outdoor studio of limitless possibility. There are dueling music videos being shot along the boardwalk – one a more DIY approach featuring a young guy showing off some dance moves while mouthing to a pre-recorded song (I assume his), all captured on his partner’s iPhone; and another, more sophisticated production, with a steady cam, hair and make-up team, and what appears to be some well-mapped-out choreography. There’s a fashion shoot underway on the beach; there’s a man who snuck under a half-closed gate grabbing a photo of an old beer sign; and another guy is taking aim at a clump of grass peeking through the boardwalk planks under a bench. (He clearly sees something I don’t.) Of course, there are, as always, lots of guys shooting lots of cellphone photos of girlfriends posing in front of all kind of things. (I can’t remember ever seeing a girlfriend taking a photo of a boyfriend, by the way. Why is that?) Anyway, for me and the benches, a quiet day, though I did capture this image, of the more organized video crew huddling up to review a take and plan their next strut. (That’s your future Youtube legend in the striped leggings.) So, there’s always something.
With the weather turning colder, the rides and the stuffed prizes have all gone into hibernation and most of the shops and food stalls have pulled down their security gates for the season - Egad!, even the Nathan’s boardwalk eatery is shuddered. It’s only mid-November, but already it’s down to a couple of tee shirt shops, a small boardwalk bar and one outdoor food joint still valiantly serving up pizza and sausage and pepper heroes. So, too, have most of the crowds retreated indoors. There are still some hearty fresh air lovers strolling up and down the boardwalk; but at this point, it’s rare to see anyone sitting on a bench killing off an afternoon. Why would they? In weather like this, now down into the 40’s and a stiff winter wind occasionally joining the fun, it’s smart to keep moving. When people do sit, it’s usually for a short pit stop, to tie a shoe or to momentarily scroll through their selfies. As for my own “Scenes from a bench” project, what I mostly see if and when the benches are occupied are single or double blobs of black winter coats, faces and all other flesh hidden behind pyramids of goose down and scarves. Its getting hard to even spot a bit of color, as everyone’s wardrobe has moved on to New York’s winter palette of dark and drab. And this is still just November! I’ve got probably five more months of what looks like declining creative opportunity. So the challenge is on. And while the opportunities for a great image will be presenting itself in ever-decreasing numbers, I have a funny feeling the chance for a rare gem out there will be even greater. No remotely cliche “boardwalk moments” till spring, I suspect. In its place, who knows. But I do like the sound of that. So, I’ll just keep walking, looking, and trying to keep warm. If anything epic presents itself, you’ll be the first to know.
You walk past a structure, and it’s just a structure. In this case, a place to duck into, to get out of the sun. Nothing all that exciting. Grey. Cement. Picnic tables underneath. You walk by again the next day. Same thing. Next day, same. A dozen more days, there it is. Yawn. Seen it. Then you walk by, same structure, same picnic tables inside, same random silhouettes of people in the shadows, only this time, there’s a birthday party in progress, and the descending sun is lighting up the balloons like they’re electrified, and the same image is no longer the same image. That’s why I go back again and again, even though I’ve seen it all a million times.
Not everyone loves to see a roaming photographer heading their way, but some people actually do. In fact, I’ve had a few people make the effort to call me over to take their picture. One was an older Eastern European couple, and another was a young family (actually the father) from somewhere I couldn’t quite determine, who wanted me to take a few pictures of his two young kids, whom he encouraged to get up off the bench and perform for me. In both those cases, I politely accepted their invitation, and they were incredibly grateful, thanking me over and over. I wondered, what do these nice people think I’m going to do with their images? Why would they want a complete stranger to have photographs of them or their kids? – and then be so grateful when it happens! It’s not as if I’m going to send them a print or file, or that I told them to look for the picture in tomorrow’s newspaper. Then, there was the woman who waved me down, even though I had noise cancelling headphones on and was trying not to make eye contact. I was pretty sure she was going to give me an earful about taking pictures of people without their permission or even knowledge, but instead she was eager to ask about my photography interests and to share her own. She was from Jamaica and told me her uncle photographed Bob Marley for one of his album covers; she felt she had the makings of a serious photographer in her blood. She shared this idea she had of documenting various everyday people - street workers, cops, store owners - on their lunch break, which I thought was a pretty cool idea. I hope she does it.