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On his epic voyage homeward from Troy to Ithaca, Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, had his crew bind him to the mast of his ship to keep him from being lured away by the enchanting sound of the Siren’s song. The crew stuffed their own ears with beeswax, to cut out not only the music of the Siren but also their captain’s delirious orders for them to set him free.

My own mundane journeys homeward in search of traces “my” vanished (or imagined) New York include a ritual of recurring late-day walks from Brighton Beach, past Coney Island, and on to Seagate and back, sometimes over the sand but usually on the part-wood, part-concrete surface of the historic boardwalk. Unlike Odysseus and his crew, I do not fear the songs of local Sirens. I traverse my route with ears unfilled and feet unfettered. Among the rewards: A pastiche of overheard conversations in Russian, Yiddish, Spanish, Haitian Creole-French, and even English, these inter-cut with melodies and rhythms of live and recorded music: Salsa, Hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, and mid-20th-century Soviet pop and post-Soviet Russian Rap. The music, in turn, brings with it occasional chances to join in summer-evening dance events, organized and impromptu.

A few weeks ago, a new Siren’s song led me from the boardwalk, across the windswept beach, and into the cold surf of Lower New York Bay.  What had first caught my ear was a distant Serbian-Roma brass-band sound not unlike that of Goran Bregovich that then seemed to merge with the tightly-arranged, turn-of-the-20th-century military marches of John Philip Sousa and then take on a hip-hop beat.  Turning seaward towards the source of the music, I saw the blinding glint of late-day sun rays bouncing off the polished brass bells of two Sousaphones.  There, standing in the surf, was a dozen-person-strong brass orchestra, its members attired as monochrome gladiators or, with a flight of fantasy, as Odysseus and his crew.  The name of the band: Funkrust.  I hope to hear — and see — them again.

Local residents, fishing village, Sunda Strait, Western Java, mid-1970s, 35mm b/w neg, scan of print. Click to enlarge.

Further to my recent post on eye contact in photography, two photos taken two decades apart on opposite halves of the globe …

Java to Brooklyn

During the second half of the 1970s, while working from the Netherlands for a large international engineering company, I spent repeated months-long stretches in Indonesia documenting oil- and gas-related construction projects, organizing participation in technical conferences, liaising with government agencies, and using my seeming abilities to “go native” and step into the worlds of others to build mutual understanding and confidence and help to win project contracts without resorting to the flagrant corruption that was the calling-card of Western business at the time and that plagued Indonesia in the Suharto era.  When I had weekends free, I joined Indonesian colleagues in escaping the noise and congestion of Jakarta.  In those days, camera-bearing foreigners were few and far between in non-touristic locales in rural Indonesia and a word of a sincere smile and word of greeting and on the part of an outsider brought very hearty responses in return.

Two decades later, in the mid-1990s, I spent a few years based in my native New York.  At the time, American clients and employers were underwhelmed, and even condescendingly contemptuous, towards work experience gained abroad, a reaction seemingly cut from the same cloth as present-day America’s counter-factual preoccupation with denigrating the economic, social, and technical achievements of the European Union.  And so, between work assignments and research projects abroad, I temporarily stepped back into the world that had shaped me in the first place —  the pre-service-sector, pre-financial-sector New York of small, low-overhead businesses and of heavy physical work, skilled and unskilled — a nostalgic retreat that would be impossible in the face of the high-rent, high-cost-of-living, low-chances-for-mobility economy of present-day New York.

The woman in the photo that follows had just arrived in America and was about to enter the bottom rungs of laboring New York and care full-time for an elderly couple lost in the fogs of Alzheimer’s.  An unusually heavy blizzard provided her with her first view of and outing into snow. Indeed, the snow blanketing the great lawn of Prospect Park was so ample and so pristine as to even attract cross-country skiers, one of whom can be seen in the background just to the left of the subject.

Brazilian immigrant encountering first snow fall, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, winter 1995-1996, 35mm b/w negative. Click to enlarge.

Two ways to focus

The fastest way to focus?  Well in advance!  The photo of the woman in the park was taken with a camera that I miss tremendously: A Minox 35, a tiny 35mm camera, not much taller or thicker, but appropriately wider, than a film cassette and resembling a black plastic, small-scale reproduction of a Zeisss Ikonta, fold-out lens and all.  The Minox had an excellent 35mm-focal-length optics and a very accurate aperture-priority metering system, but it offered absolutely no optical focusing aids of any sort, neither split-image nor matte-glass.  One focused the Minox by estimate, setting the perceived camera-to-subject distance on the numeric scale on the lens barrel or using the depth-of-field scale to match aperture to hyper-focal distance.  The benefits: An uncluttered viewfinder and absolutely no focusing or shutter lag, focus having been set prior to lifting the camera to one’s eye.  As to the two ways to focus? One could chose to estimate and set the distance in feet … or in meters!

Two fallible cameras

The downside of the Minox 35 was its delicacy. I went through three in a decade and a half.  The metering system failed in one, the shutter in another, and a light leak and faulty film advance mechanism crippled a third.  Even less robust, however, was the camera with which I photographed the Javanese villagers, the first iteration of the Olympus OM-1, a camera that was not up to the rigors of the heat and humidity of Indonesia.  Within weeks of purchase, the rubber focus grips on the barrels of the Olympus’s lenses (35, 50, and 100mm, as per the classic combination of the time) had come loose and the lens elements of each were obscured by a proliferation of fungus — this quite unlike the medium-format Mamiya and 35mm Canon and Nikon equipment that I’d before and after.

Two worthy links

In my recent post on eye contact (linked to above), I weighed the balance between eye contact drawing out subjects and prompting them to manifest themselves vs. manipulating and overwhelming them with the presence and persona of the photographer.

Last week, I witnessed the transcendence of this dichotomy in an exhibition at Gallery Photosynthesis in Sofia, Bulgaria of near-life-size prints of magnificent, technically-masterful, full-length portraits taken by Bulgarian (Plovdivian/”Filibelı“) photographer Sonya Stankove.

Sonya Stankova took the photos in the late-1980s/early-1990s.  At the time, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Stankova was working in a photo studio in her native city of Plovdiv, where hundreds of queued each day to have their photos taken for  passports required to leave Bulgaria in search of opportunities, real and fantasized, abroad.  Every now and then, when a customer struck Stankova’s fancy, she asked if she could take a second photo for her own collection.  She would then slide a fresh full-frame sheet of film into the large-format wooden view-camera the studio ordinarily used for passport-sized photos, engage the subject, and squeeze the shutter release bulb, keeping the lens open for an amount of time estimated by intuition.  The resulting photos captured the individuality of the subjects and, displayed together, provide a documentary view into the place and time they were taken.

To close, I (figuratively) zoom-out further to consider the ultimate question underlying photography in the digital age, via a link to the eclectic weblog of “The Online Photographer,” master-printer Michael Johnston. The subject: “Why take more photographs at all?”

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I’ve neglected this site since early February.  Obligations and commitments in Istanbul and the Balkans — including an enjoyable half-day tour and presentation on the historical and present-day dynamics of the city of Sofia, Bulgaria, that gave to visiting students and faculty from New York University — took up most of February and March. In April, I left for a multi-month stay in New York, a city of immense parks street-side greenery — in this respect not unlike Sofia, where, as I write, the leaves of a tall birch tree brush against my window and the scent of the thousands of blossoming linden trees that line the city’s streets and shade it’s courtyards perfumes the air. Late in March, the weather in Sofia was spring-like. New York, to the contrary, was enduring a seemingly endless cold-spell following a near-arctic winter.  Nevertheless, by May, trees and shrubbery came alive and blossoms burst forth.  The photos above, below, and linked to via the Read More button at the bottom of this entry, were taken during a late-day stroll in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights and a mid-day walk from Park Slope to Boerum Hill, a couple of miles to the west.  On most grounds, economic and social, I oppose the rampant gentrification that has pushed out non-white, lower-income, and gray-haired New Yorkers from swaths of northern Brooklyn.  However, when I see the revived and manicured beauty of such neighborhoods my opposition momentarily softens … that is, until I remember that, given the pace and expanse of gentrification, ordinary New Yorkers will soon be forced to live so far from the city’s lovely historic neighborhoods that they will rarely have the opportunity, time, or means to visit them.

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Additional photos follow; click in Read More below.

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An infrastructural question: Will seaside boardwalks survive the 21st century?

A look at the New York region suggests that they might not.  The resurgence of nature over urban artifice during last year’s Hurricane Sandy revealed anew the importance of regeneration and/or conservancy of natural coastlines.  The flooding that devastated nearby Long Beach on the south shore of Long Island, for example, would have been avoided or minimized had natural sand dunes still been in place that were removed early in the twentieth century to clear the way for apartments with oceanside frontage and the construction of a magnificent miles-long boardwalk promenade.  This year’s fire to the south of New York City on New Jersey’s Atlantic shore owed its rapid spread to the very materials that give boardwalks their name: wood-plank paving.   And, yet, boardwalks remain urban necessities.

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011. (Fuji X100)

Shuttered monument to a forgotten Brooklyn politician: Abe Stark Sport Center, Boardwalk, Coney Island-Brighton Beach, 2011.(Fuji X100.)  In the foreground: the characteristic herringbone wood planking of New York City boardwalks and a lone dented trash barrel painted in the signature green of the NYC Dept. of Parks.

From fashion to survival

Boardwalks are products of the interstice of 19th-century romanticism and 19th-century urbanity, in which nature was a picturesque backdrop to be seen but not touched, to be witnessed — but with dry and unsoiled shoes — from the safety and elegance of seaside promenades and beach-front hotels and restaurants. In the context of the lives of millions of ordinary New Yorkers — this writer and two generations of his forebears included — the boardwalk at Coney Island was and remains central to urban survival.   Like Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the Coney Island boardwalk from Brighton Beach past Coney Island to Seagate gives New Yorkers who lack the means to vacation or to travel afar access to fresh air and a refuge from urban congestion and searing summer heat.

Outlets to the sea

The Coney Island boardwalk was built ninety years ago, a time when the farmlands of Brooklyn were being paved over en masse for the construction of seemingly endless expanses of working- and lower-middle-class apartments for immigrants and their children fleeing cramped, degrading housing conditions in lower Manhattan.  Their flight followed the paths of newly built subways lines, trajectories that gave also gave shape to the schemes of real estate speculators.   The continuation of subway lines to the seaside, and thus to Coney Island, afforded the urban working poor an easy outlet to the beach and to walks and leisurely socializing on surfaces less oppressive than urban concrete, and to sounds less intrusive than the ever-present rattling of horse carts and, later, the roar of automobiles.

Changing numbers, changing faces

Over the last century, usage of the Coney Island boardwalk has fluctuated in parallel with the fortunes and changing demographics of its immediate hinterland.  (A lengthy subject that I will save for future posts.)  The apogee of the boardwalk’s crowds and popularity was in the 1930s and early 1940s.  A decline set in after the Second World War and continued through 1970s.  A revival was sparked in the late-1970s, in part by the settlement in Brighton Beach of tens of thousands of mostly Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union.  Over the past decades, the faces seen, and accents and languages heard, along the boardwalk have changed from those of Jews, Irish, and Italians — once amongst the dominant ethnic groups in New York — to those of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, Russians, Central Asians, Indians, Pakistanis, Mexicans, and Chinese.  What has remained constant is the precarious place of boardwalk denizens towards the lower rungs of New York City’s housing and economy.

From infrastructure to serendipity

During the 1930s and early-40s, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the mayor-ship of Fiorello LaGuardia, investment in and maintenance of public infrastructure, both physical and social, was seen as a core task of government – – a means for collectively facilitating the lives and advancement of all individuals comprising our society and, not least, ensuring social peace in the process.  Parks, beaches, and boardwalks included, were parts of the mix.

America's shoreline: John"s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

America’s shoreline: John”s Italian Ices and a tattered US flag. Sunset at the Coney Island Boardwalk, 2011. (Fuji X100)

“Fast forward” to the years of New York as financial center and the Bloomberg years, the age of a real-estate-development-driven economy, increasing unequal distribution of wealth, and “Manhattanization” (a new phrase coined to describe the phenomenon of a economically and demographically variegated city or part thereof suddenly turning into a preserve of those at the upper income levels, this a la the fate of much of Manhattan since the start of the millennium).

Over the last decade, social and physical infrastructure and their maintenance are increasingly surrendered to private enterprises or left to the serendipitous voluntarism of “public private partnerships.”   One of the results has been the filleting of the public funds for parks maintenance and the establishment in place thereof of “public-private partnerships” in the form of “conservancies” linked to individual properties.  The outcome has been predictable.  Manhattan’s Central Park, the city’s highest profile park facility, flanked by three of New York’s wealthiest district is governed and funded by a conservation with an immense endowment and budget.  Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Conservancy struggles to cover costs and many of the parks facilities still dependent on filleted public funds languish.

“Let them walk on concrete:”

Wood paved boardwalks splinter, warp, and rot, they are maintenance intensive and require periodic resurfacing.  In the spirit of Marie Antoinette advising the bread-starved poor of pre-revolutionary Paris  “… let them eat cake,”  the Bloomberg era’s prescription for the patrons of the Brighton Beach-Coney Island boardwalk appeared to be: “… let them walk on concrete.”   A couple of years ago, large sections of the boardwalk surface were stripped of their wood and replaced by prefabricated modular sections of light-colored concrete with surfaces crudely textured to give the impression of wood grain.  The modular sections were poorly leveled and sloppily abutted.

The immediate reaction?  Small crowds of boardwalk denizens gathered in amazement and  Read More

A Brighton Beach sabbath afternoon. Ultra-orthodox Jews gazing at volley ball and the horizon; Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

A Brighton Beach sabbath afternoon. Ultra-orthodox Jews gazing (longingly?) at a volley ball game and the sand, sea, and horizon; Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Note the prefabricated concrete boardwalk surface, grained in a half-hearted attempt to simulate the traditional wood plank surface — more on this in a subsequent post.