Editor’s note: The following article is the foreward to Harvey’s new book Coney Island People: 50 Years written by Virginia Hines. She graciously allowed us to share it with you along with a selection of Harvey’s images from the book.
CONEY ISLAND. The words are so rich with associations and possibility that I almost don’t want to go there and pop the bubbles of fantasy they evoke. A blinking, spinning, whirling, shrieking psychedelia of light, motion, and sound. Human bodies cheek by jowl on the beach, oiled like the sardines they resemble. A preposterous dimension where things are the inverse of the everyday; the souls of Dante’s Inferno transported to an American funhouse. When did I first hear this incantatory place-name, vague in specific meaning but highly suggestive of pleasure: cone like ice cream? Island like paradise? Too early to recall, as though it were manifested from the collective unconscious, haunting my dreams before I could recognize it.
Actually, I’ve been to Coney Island twice. The first time, appropriately, with a beau. It was in the spring and chilly. After a hot dog he made a beeline for the Cyclone and we clambered aboard the rickety old pile of wood. Round and round, up and down for half a mile, testing Newton’s so-called laws and century-old building technology at every swaying, creaking hairpin turn. I like my feet on solid ground and spent most of the trip in a kind of fetal position wrapped around a safety bar that seemed far too flimsy. Charles Lindbergh is said to have called a Cyclone ride “greater than flying an airplane at top speed.” There’s another experience I hope never to have. At last the agony was over; we slowed to a stop. “Re-ride?” the attendant asked. Before I could speak up my friend was waving a handful of dollar bills and we were off again.
Somehow I survived the Cyclone ordeal, because years later I returned to Coney Island. The Cyclone was still there, although the open plaza I remembered (or thought I did) in front of it was filled with other attractions, many with the glossy plastic and high safety standards of your typical state fair rides. But that’s the thing about Coney: it’s never the same place twice. The Coney Island you think you know is partly real, partly a product of the primordial soup of memory, imagination, and repressed anxieties that we conflate with objective reality.
In spite of the continual metamorphosis returnees can orient to familiar landmarks, much as sailors of yore navigated by the heavens. Of course, the Cyclone. Nathan’s on the boardwalk. The Parachute Jump, rising like an esoteric remnant from some precursor civilization. The Spook-A-Rama, where you lurch through other people’s nightmares. And oh my, the Wonder Wheel, the gyrating navel of this parallel universe, entered, aptly, by descending into the earth. When you cross the invisible threshold that separates Coney Island from the quotidian world you fall down Alice’s rabbit hole into a saturnalia that exists to break the rules, an iconoclastic, shape-shifting, alchemical limbo-land. Even the name only tells you what the place is not: no longer an island and nary a coney (from the Dutch konijn, rabbit) in many a century.
For half a century now, Harvey Stein has turned his wide-eyed Leica on Coney’s spectacle, pressed close with a light-bending, space-warping 21mm lens that improbably stretches and bends the whole electric wonderland into the frame. His camera makes gods of the men, women, and children who enter its field of view. Indeed, to photograph such a place with a “normal” lens would be a crime against photography. Where the casual observer finds chaos, Stein see patterns and themes and guides us, as Virgil did Dante, through the netherworld. He proffers the litany of deadly sins. Gluttony? Foot-long hot dogs! Sloth? Where’s my beach chair? Lust? Check out those mermaids! Greed, envy, pride, wrath – all accounted for. Strolling the boardwalk, he observes not only the three dimensions that you or I see, but all of it through the prism of time. His camera knows the present world and also 50 years of previous incarnations and this is what we discover in the photographs, a vision enriched by all of it together, space and time collapsed in 1/125th of a second. Einstein would be impressed.
Make no mistake, remarkable as Coney’s places and things may be, its real essence is the people, the panoply of genus Americana, species New Yorker whose sagas Stein relates with every press of the shutter. What Audubon was to wildlife, Stein is to Coney’s fauna: comprehensive, meticulous, curious, tenacious, artistic, inspired. His protagonists are the most specific of individuals, transformed into archetypes. If, far in the future (or, frighteningly, not so far) humans become extinct and aliens stumble on our orbiting little rock, and are fortunate enough to come across a copy of this book, they will have the only primer they need, really, to understand all that matters about the late American populace: joys, pains, fears, and habits. Such is the microcosmic intensity of Coney Island, and Stein’s gift for elucidating it.
Finally, an admonition: should you contemplate Harvey Stein’s pictures of Coney Island and find them exotic or outré, look again. Few things are stranger than an unexpected glimpse of oneself in a mirror.
To hear Harvey tell the story behind his 50 years shooting Coney Island, listen to our recent podcast interview with him.