Striking black-and-white portraits of people at Coney Island

Coney Island in motion: Stunning portraits show New Yorkers captured unaware at the city’s storied beach where photographer hid camera under the water until the last possible moment

  • Photographer Peter Kayafas chronicled Coney Island for decades. He was part of the Polar Bear Club, which takes plunges in the winter ocean at the seaside, in 1990 and then returned for its summer seasons
  • The Brooklyn beach has long lured photographers with its attractions and characters, and Kayafas took images while in the water. In the summers, he hid his camera underwater until the last moment
  • His new book, Coney Island Waterdance, features 30 black-and-white images of New Yorkers and visitors

When Peter Kayafas moved to New York City, he knew exactly where he wanted to go to photograph: Coney Island.

Packed with people, attractions and characters, the seaside has long lured photographers – from Walker Evans to Weegee – and Kayafas wanted to see what he could contribute to its chronicling.

On his first trip to the Brooklyn beach, he saw the men and women of the Polar Bear Club barreling into the biting winter water. He told DailyMail.com: ‘Right away, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.’

That encounter on a November day in 1990 sparked his decades-long documentation of the destination. Kayafas was the first photographer to take the plunge with the Polar Bears, at least according to them, and take their picture while in the water.

After that winter, Kayafas returned to the ocean summer after summer and hiding his camera underwater until the last moment, he made black-and-white portraits of people swimming, clinging, diving, freezing and leaping. Seen behind the New Yorkers and visitors is the neighborhood’s celebrated shoreline dotted with iconic rides like the Wonder Wheel and the rollercoaster Cyclone.

Thirty of these pictures are part of his new book, Coney Island Waterdance. ‘These images are, for me, like passages from some primal, beautiful ballet—the energy, gesture, and emotion of the narrative rising and falling with the subjects on the waves,’ he wrote.      

In the winter of 1990, photographer Peter Kayafas joined the Polar Bear Club for their plunges into the ocean at Coney Island. He met its members on his first visit to the famed seaside. ‘I was standing on the boardwalk, bracing myself against the wind coming off the ocean, when a group of pink, half-naked men and women emerged from a cinder-block shed beneath my feet and made their barefoot way quickly across the snow-crusted sand toward the frigid ocean. After some jumping jacks, a bit of stretching, and a collective battle cry, they bounded into the water like lunatics out of the gate,’ he wrote in his new book, Coney Island Waterdance. Above, an image from 1990 of Polar Bear members with the Wonder Wheel on the left

‘Right away, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘I wanted to participate.’ From around November 1990 to mid-March 1991, Kayafas spent his Sundays with the members before, during and after the plunge. He wrote: ‘The club had been much photographed, but they told me that I was the first photographer to suit up and join them in the water.’ After that winter, Kayafas returned in the summers. He took the above image, which is also Coney Island Waterdance’s cover, in 1997. He noted the sheer joy of the boy diving and the girls playing. ‘This was a quintessential picture of why I love doing this work,’ he said. The Cyclone, a rollercoaster that opened in June 1927, is seen on the left

The Polar Bear Club had a ritual around their Sunday plunge, which took place at noon. Some members arrived earlier and hung out  at their clubhouse, which was then under the boardwalk. They then warmed up with exercise such as push-ups, jumping jacks and sit-ups. One member would take the club’s American flag and plant the pole on the beach before they swam, Kayafas explained. The signal to sprint into the water was the president blowing the conch shell. Once in the water, the members then joined hands and formed a circle. ‘I would get in the middle of the circle and photograph them,’ he said. ‘I was part of the experience, part of the community.’ Above, an image of the members, who Kayafas knew, in 1990

Kayafas used a waterproof Nikonos camera to photographed the Polar Bear Club that winter. ‘I soon had a lot of new friends, but also a real appreciation for what that insanely cold water actually does to the body. It’s true, as the Polar Bear Club claims, that the experience invigorates not just for the painful minutes while in the water, but for every day of the week to follow,’ Kayafas wrote in his new book. Above, a young girl who was ‘jumping and looking over her shoulder’ in an image from 1991

For decades, photographers have been hearing Coney Island’s siren call due to its storied and seedy history.

It began as a luxury spot with grand hotels in the 1800s. Its – and the nation’s – first rollercoaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted in 1884, and the area was a magnet for acts like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Harry Houdini.

In the 1920s, the subway, which then cost a nickel, made the beach accessible to the working class. Walker Evans, known for his Great Depression images, was taking photographs of the boardwalk’s lights and sights since at least the late 1920s.

By the time crime photographer Weegee took his famous 1940 image of a crowded beach where humans seem to fill its every inch, the destination was beginning to decline. This trend continued after World War II with the rapid rise of other entertainment like television, the increased frequency of flying and the automobile boom.

‘Coney Island, in a way, was left to New Yorkers,’ Kayafas said.

In 1989, Kayafas moved to Manhattan to study at New York University. Well-versed in the destination’s photographic past, Coney Island was one of the first places he went.

That winter in 1990, he watched Polar Bear Club members dash into the ocean. They had emerged from a cinder-block shed, which the lifeguards let them use, under the boardwalk. (Later on, during the 1990s, the space under the boardwalk was filled in and fenced off.)

‘I guess I’d heard of the Polar Bear Club before, but their appearance in the flesh, at that moment, was a great surprise and delight,’ Kayafas wrote in his new book, Coney Island Waterdance. 

And so, on Sundays from that November to around mid-March in 1991, Kayafas dove into the chilly ocean with the Polar Bears and learned the club’s rituals and routines. Back then, he said that the club had around 20 to 25 members, many of whom were older.

The plunge was at noon, but some arrived earlier and hung out at the clubhouse under the boardwalk. They then warmed up with exercise such as push-ups, jumping jacks and sit-ups. One member would take the club’s American flag and plant the pole on the beach before they swam, Kayafas explained.

The signal to sprint into the water was the president blowing the conch shell. Kayafas said people jumped up and down and hollered because of the water’s effect. The members then joined hands and formed a circle.

‘I would get in the middle of the circle and photograph them,’ he said.

Coney Island was already on Kayafas’ list to visit when he moved to Manhattan to attend New York University. The seaside, which has a storied and seedy history, has attracted photographers for decades. Legends like Walker Evans, known for his Great Depression images, was taking photographs of the boardwalk’s lights and sights since at least the late 1920s. Weegee, who is famous for his crime scene photographs, took a well-known 1940 image of Coney Island’s crowded beach where humans seem to fill its every inch. The destination, once a luxury spot, was starting to wane around this time. This trend continued after World War II with the rapid rise of other entertainment like television, the increased frequency of flying and the automobile boom. ‘Coney Island, in a way, was left to New Yorkers,’ Kayafas said. Above, a woman freezes with her boyfriend behind during the summer of 1992. Kayafas said it was a ‘beautiful intimate moment’ between the couple

Above, a father tosses his son, who looks as if he is walking on water. ‘To me it’s sort of perfect,’ Kayafas told DailyMail.com about the above image from 1992. He noted the Parachute Jump on the right. ‘It is such a specific Coney Island landmark.’ The 262-foot-high Parachute Jump was first built as a ride for the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Queens and was relocated to its current location in 1941, according to the New York City Parks Department’s website. At one point in the early 1970s it was put up for sale and almost demolished, but local groups rallied to save it. It took until 1989 for the city to designate the Parachute Jump as a landmark. ‘In 1991, a $700,000 two-phase plan was undertaken to clear debris, such as hanging cables, from the Jump and to stabilize the structure,’ according to the Parks Department’s website

Photographing the Polar Bear Club members in 1990 is ‘how I fell in love with Coney Island,’ Kayafas wrote in his new book.  Kayafas used a waterproof camera that had to be reloaded after one roll of film, which meant he would have to get out of the water to do so. But given the cold water, he took the 36 exposures about the time the Polar Bears were in the ocean. ‘It’s a really unpleasant experience,’ the photographer recalled. ‘When you come out of the water, you can’t feel your hands or feet.’ The camera distracted him from the chill, which he called a shock to the system. Above, a Polar Bear Club member in 1990

The winter Polar Bear Club project ran its course, but his fascination with the Coney Island continued. The photographer went during its summer season, which runs between Memorial and Labor Day. Kayafas was still in the ocean but now kept his camera hidden underwater until he wanted to take a picture. Above, an image from 1996. Kayafas said: ‘One of those pictures that as a photographer you are grateful for.’ The two girls, who seem to be relatives, knew they were having their picture taken, he recalled

Kayafas used a waterproof camera that had to be reloaded after one roll of film, which meant he would have to get out of the water to do so. But given the cold water, he took the 36 exposures about the time the Polar Bears were in the ocean.

‘It’s a really unpleasant experience,’ the photographer recalled. ‘When you come out of the water, you can’t feel your hands or feet.’

The camera distracted him from the chill, which he called a shock to the system.

‘It was all about the belief that the cold water would recharge your batteries,’ he explained, adding that he did feel a boost of energy while he participated in the plunge.

Health and community is why people participated and Kayafas said he also spent time with members and photographed them at other places, like a nightclub.

After the plunge, members stood on the beach and faced the sun with their arms out. Some went back to the shed, where there was a heater and shower, and then headed home.

The project ran its course, but his fascination with the Coney Island continued. He then went during its summer season, which runs between Memorial and Labor Day. Kayafas was still in the ocean but now he kept his camera hidden underwater until he wanted to take a picture.

During the 1990s, he also was taking pictures of the neighborhood’s bars and rides like Cyclone. But people reacted differently to him in the ocean, he noted, then they did on the boardwalk.

‘But, it is the people in the water, both in the winter and the summer, that have yielded the most satisfying photographs. I am mostly interested in the way people look when they don’t know they are being photographed,’ he wrote in Coney Island Waterdance.

‘The activity of being in the water, whether it is breathtakingly cold or welcome relief from summer heat, is both a distraction (good cover for a photographer) and a disinhibition, the combination of which makes for remarkably immediate, energized, and even intimate portraits.’

Kayafas photographed other parts and aspects of Coney Island. ‘The freak shows, the Mermaid Parade, the amusements, the boardwalk’s old bars and games, the crowds on the beach— all have been of great interest as subject matter to me. But, it is the people in the water, both in the winter and the summer, that have yielded the most satisfying photographs. I am mostly interested in the way people look when they don’t know they are being photographed,’ he wrote in Coney Island Waterdance. Above, an image in 1992, a little boy  is ‘having his own private moment,’ Kayafas told DailyMail.com. He noted the woman smoking a cigarette to his right is likely his mother watching him from a safe distance

Because people from over all the city flock to Coney Island to escape the heat, Kayafas said: ‘It made for an interesting cross-section’ to photograph. Above, two teen girls freeze in 1997. He noted that their shrug was a common gesture for people to deal with the water’s chill as well as the foot in the image’s left corner. Photography is a generous medium, he said. The photographer has hundreds of pictures of people in the water, but choose only 30 images for his new book

Above, two girls in a wave, which Kayafas called their pas de deux. ‘They are kind of lifted up out of the water,’ he told DailyMail.com. ‘These images are, for me, like passages from some primal, beautiful ballet—the energy, gesture, and emotion of the narrative rising and falling with the subjects on the waves,’ he wrote in his new book Coney Island Waterdance

Children cling to their mothers and relatives, above, in an image from 1992. ‘The kids would be screaming,’ the photographer recalled of the moment. ‘Then there’s the amazing wall of splash.’ He noted that there were families everywhere. The background of the portraits was important to Kayafas and he pointed out that the most of the buildings seen above were abandoned and derelict. Coney Island was a little dangerous in the late 1980s and early ’90s, he said

Source: Read Full Article