Art: Old Coney Island photos take you beyond the boardwalk
Aaron Rose photographed Coney Island from 1961-63. Now his collection, "In a World of Their Own," is on display at the Museum of the City of New York.
By the start of the 1960s, Coney Island’s heyday lay far behind. The famed Grand Carousel still spun, but with far more creaking and tarnish after decades of economic depression, racial tension and violent crime. Nothing, however, could stop thousands of New Yorkers from escaping to the boardwalks and beaches of Coney Island during the most oppressive summer days.
“In a World of Their Own," the new photography exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, transports us to that time period through 70 photographs taken by Aaron Rose from 1961 to 1963. A New Yorker by birth, and death, Rose spent his entire life passionately documenting the city. As Rose himself once stated, “Where could I find a better studio?” The collection of 25,000 images — each printed by hand, and only once — was kept hidden by Rose most of his life, for fear of commercial demand on his personal passions.
The first of the exhibition’s two bronze-tinged sections focuses on the vast crowds swelling the beaches and boardwalks — all brimming with the hard-bitten, thrust-forward self-surety of the New York spirit. The epic scope, activity and density of the throngs astonish as does the stunning diversity — not just in the ethnic make-up of the thick crowds, but in humanity itself: young and old, skinny and fat, active and passive, gay and straight.
Part two of the exhibition adopts the blushing intimacy of Renoir’s garden party, as Rose’s camera trains on individuals and couples. Once more, New York’s individualism appears front and center, as young men flex, couples canoodle, children dig in the sand and seniors stare wistfully out to sea. When combined in a single shot, however, the exhibition finds its sharpest message. Although nearly physically on top of each other, the people of Coney Island exist in a world of their own.