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Coney Island Paradox

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Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea.

from The Ancient Mariner
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Once upon a time, many years ago, two young photographers set out on a pilgrimage to the centre of the world, New York City. They were curious to discover what was going on and meet persons of inspiration such as Cornell Capa, André Kertész, Abigail Heyman, Arthur Tress and anyone else who could be found. They also set about to investigate Magnum, the infant International Center of Photography, Tennyson Schad’s new Light Gallery, the Witkin Gallery as well as to crawl about Soho and indulge in contemporary art.

As in most places on Sunday morning, central Manhattan appeared dead and deserted so the photographers decided to adventure to the edge of the world, Coney Island. After a long subway trip they arrived at the Stillwell Avenue terminus and a brief stroll brought them to The Boardwalk.

Coney Island is the westernmost of the barrier islands of Long Island. Today it is a peninsula as the tidal flats that once separated it from southernmost Brooklyn have been filled in. The outer, southern side of Coney Island is a long beach exposed to the forces of the Atlantic Ocean. The orientation keeps the beach area in sunlight all day. A community of 60,000 people inhabits the western part of the peninsula.

Coney Island became a resort after the Civil War as excursion railroads and a streetcar line reached the area in the 1860s. Stylish hotels were built and entertainment for all tastes was available. By the early 20th, the beach area became a major resort and site of amusement parks as people fled the stolid, hot summers in Manhattan and other boroughs. Tens of thousands of people flooded the beach and boardwalk and found thrills on the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone and the Thunderbolt roller coasters. After World War II, Coney Island declined in popularity and for many years the seaside installations suffered neglect. Amusement parks closed and a series of fires destroyed other facilities. Subsidized apartments for low-income persons where built adjacently to the boardwalk and in the 1950s street gang problems spilled over into Coney Island. (To read more on Coney Island history:

So here we were on The Boardwalk, a chilly but sunny day in early December. It would be unreasonable to expect to encounter the ever faithful summer population. The place was very desolate except for a few individuals here and there, absorbing the warmth of the sun, their backs or faces to adjacent buildings and a few others walking briskly along. Most were middle-aged men; maybe most women were less adventurous to visit such an environment. Occasionally a walker would hesitate for a few minutes to converse with a stationary person, perhaps to exchange news before a long winter. Those who were not ambulatory were either reading or lost in some state of meditation as they absorbed a last dose the sun’s energy before winter.

As I walked and observed, I took out my camera, a small Canon rangefinder as I was not fortunate enough to own a Leica. Over the next couple of hours I exposed less than two rolls of film. I reacted quite spontaneously to what I saw, without pretension or analysis. Although my friend and fellow photographer was not too far off, I was absorbed in my inner thoughts. I was essentially alone, far from my milieu, on the outskirts of one of the world largest cities, on the edge of the world. The cold Atlantic breeze chilled my hands and neck as the brilliant sun burned my face. In my daydream I thought of a similar experience, not so long past, as I had walked to the edge of Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland where I had felt between desolation and solitude.

Later when I looked at the developed negatives, I realized that they captured something special that I could not quite grasp. I didn’t make any prints and put the negatives away. Every so often, over the years, I would take them out and look at them again. The images haunted me but I could do nothing. Now, with some hindsight, I realize that the congregating theme is Solitude, or perhaps more appropriately the Solitudes of many.

Solitude is a state of seclusion or isolation and often implies having made a conscious choice to be alone. It may be a time to work, think or rest without being disturbed. People may seek physical seclusion to remove distractions in order to concentrate, reflect, or meditate. The seclusion may be desired for the sake of privacy and, if by choice, it can be a positive, pleasurable, and emotionally refreshing experience.

But often people are secluded not by choice and they suffer from loneliness. Loneliness does not require aloneness. It is often experienced even in crowded places when a person feels an absence of identification, understanding or compassion. In heavily populated cities people can feel utterly cut off and isolated within an anonymous crowd. Evidently the quantity of human contact does not translate into a quality of contact necessary to sustain the spirit of an individual. Consider the population of the United States where more than 30 million individuals live in single-person households. A study in the American Sociological Review found that Americans on average had only two close friends to confide in, 19% had only a single confidant and 25% had no confidant. No wonder it often feels that the world is small!

The paradox that confronted me at Coney Island was the apparent human void in a place that is known for the enormous crowds of vacationing and pleasure seeking people. The manifest absence of the multitudes was explicable, but who were these residual characters. I could suppose that the majority were perhaps residents nearby. What was their motivation to come to this place in the winter and behave as they did? Were they seeking a place to be private, to reflect, to meditate, face to the ocean, or face to a blank wall with the warm sun on their backs? Or were they, quite to the opposite, on display, so that others would remark their presence in the void? Maybe they were running away from something, or themselves. What was I, myself, doing there observing this environment? Why had I really chosen to go there? Does one ever find answers to such existential questions?

All come into this world alone; all leave it alone.
~ Thomas De Quincey
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