The Eyes of Coney Island

Brooklyn Currents | 2/18/2014 | 1 comments

CIUSA1Jim McDonnell by BrooklynCurrents
CI USA photo by Jim McDonnell

KennyLombardi by BrooklynCurrents
CI USA photo by Kenny Lombardi
Brooklyn Currents Assistant Editor

If you would put Coney Island in a snow globe, roll it around in your hands,and examine it from every angle, you still wouldn't see a single spot that hasn't been photographed by its five official photographers.

So you don't want to miss the opening reception of a photographic exhibition honoring these local shutterbugs, titled, "A Stroll Through Coney Island Among Friends." The show, presented by the arts organization Coney Island USA, begins Saturday Feb. 22 at the Shooting Gallery/Arts Annex at 1214 Surf Avenue in Coney Island, running from noon to 5 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday through April 6.

Works by Norman Blake, Kenny Lombardi, Bruce Handy, Jim McDonnell and Eric Kowalsky will be showcased. No one knows Coney Island better than these locals who have shot the Island from a variety of different artistic perspectives, from the photojournalistic to digital art, the nitty-gritty street photography, to the Island's beautiful natural landscapes.

You'll lose yourself in this luscious eye candy, as you take a magical trip through the years, discovering some of Coney Island's hidden mysteries, all in a photographic collage of this amusement city by the sea.

Norman Blake considers himself a photojournalist, covering nearly every news event in Coney Island during the last thirteen years. He is one of two official photographers who work for the Coney Island USA Arts Organization, housed in the historical landmark building on the corner of Surf Avenue and 12th Street.

"If it happens here, I make it a point to be here, or else I'd hear about it down the road from Dick [Zigun] or Rob [Leddy], why we don't have any photo coverage of it," Blake says. "I've actually been a photographer going on 50 years this year. My professional career began in 1973. My photography career was in the sport of drag racing. But on the weekends, to look at something other than car racing, I would come out here and wander around the boardwalk to relax."

Dick Zigun is the founder and artistic director of CIUSA, a fine-arts master's graduate from the Yale School of Drama and the unofficial mayor of Coney Island. Rob Leddy is the public relations director and webmaster of CIUSA, as well as the director of the Coney Island Film Festival.

Blake is a 59-year-old Brooklyn native whose father took him on many of the Coney Island rides when he was a child, including the Steeplechase ride that was dismantled a few years ago. Later, in 1973 when he began his career as a photographer, he added Coney Island to his resume.

In the '90s, "they had just filled it in underneath, so you couldn't walk underneath it anymore," Blake recalled. "I was there when The Warriors was being filmed out here. So I have some production photos of [the actors] walking on the boardwalk. They were filming the scene with the hearse over by the subway, which became the scene by the boardwalk, 'Come out and Play-ay' --- with the bottles. When they did that film they used a lot of daytime for nighttime kind of things."

The Coney landscape changes every season with new rides that come and go each year, Blake says, referring to them as "transient amusements." He has tried to capture as many as he could over the years.

"It's just sad to see some of these old buildings being ripped down and to look at dead air," he says. "It's sad to think they're just going to put up a bunch of hotels or something like that. All the rides, anything that was amusement-driven, like the candy places in the subway, I miss. I used to get pink and white popcorn all the time from the candy store at the bottom of the subway, at Philip's Candy Shop."

Next to Blake's news shots in the exhibition, another artist lets you experience a more personal and surreal side of the beach, manipulating photos with his own dreamlike interpretations of Coney Island.

"I always shoot from an artistic perspective," says Kenny Lombardi, a 54-year-old Bensonhurst resident who's a technology junkie and an expert in Photoshop.

"You'll never see me do [news photos] because it doesn't entice me, but if I can catch a unique moment – where someone is doing a back flip or something different – that's what I'll take. For example, now the Parachute Jump is lit with all kinds of neon lights – just capturing that unique moment does it for me," Lombardi says.

During our interview, all of a sudden his four fellow photographers from the exhibition sitting next to him yell simultaneously---"HE LOMBARDARIZES IT!"

"Lombardarizing" a photo is what the other four Coney Island photographers refer to Lombardi's photos after he's Photoshoped them. Lombardi calls it his unique artistic spin, like a secret recipe that appeals to many people-- and only he knows the ingredients.

"Like a painting…one of the pieces you'll see that's featured in this exhibition is of that man right there,' Lombardi says as he point to a picture of Dick Zigun. "Dick is walking at the front of the Mermaid Parade, passing the building you're sitting in right now, which is a landmark. He is in his traditional Mermaid garb, with his drum, and walking with his wife Pat, and people are surrounding him with this beautiful building behind him. I captured that moment because it caught my eye and I put my artsy spin to it and that's magic to me. It doesn't look like a traditional photo, it looks like a painting."

Lombardi dedicated himself to photography nine years ago, so, unlike those who started in the craft when there were still such things as film and darkrooms, he first learned the art with a digital camera.

He soon entered photo contests on the Internet, and failed every time. But one day: "There was one category called artistic interpretation; where you would have to upload an original photo and show how you transformed it. I found my niche because I won photo of the day, photo of the week, and photo of the month," Lombardi says. "I would shoot things like Central Park and I would [use Photoshop to] make it look like a painting. It's basically making the colors come out and grab you. It's obviously enhanced and a surreal type of picture."

Jim McDonnell is a freelance documentary researcher who works as a photographer for Luna Park, owned by Zamperla Amusement industries. He's also one of two photographers in the show who's a member of the Polar Bear Club, whose members famously swim in the frigid Atlantic at the Coney Island beach every New Year's Day. McDonnell has on a black Polar Bear coat as he explains his job as a landscape and advertising photographer for Luna Park.

"It's two-part, because [the Luna Park owners] are ride manufacturers and amusement park operators," he says. "So there are shots they want specifically of rides, and shots specifically of the landscape of the Luna Park environment for online and commercial use. There are two tiers, obviously for the ride manufacturer and the ride sales that are done internationally, and then for the domestic markets here locally. Mine are more landscape type of photography."

The 43-year-old old McDonnell first visited Coney when his father took him on the rides on the 1970s; he later rediscovered the amusement mecca in 2007, when a friend recommended him to Luna Park. He's been photographing it ever since.

"What attracts me to Coney Island as a photographer personally is--- that it really is a People's Playground," he says. "It epitomizes the melting pot that New York promises to be. Tourists come to Coney Island, but primarily our audience here is New Yorkers. You're not going to see many New Yorkers in Times Square, you're going to come to Coney Island and see people who live in New York coming to have a good time. That's what Coney Island is about for me…seeing people who live here coming to relax and enjoy themselves."

Bruce Handy describes himself as a street photographer, documenting the variety of people who inhabit Coney Island and the way they interact in their surroundings.

"Everyone who lives in New York City is basically represented in Coney Island.," he says. "You're able to see a lot of different people doing a lot of different things. I basically try to capture people's emotions, so I take a lot of photographs, and it's easier when there are a lot of people around and when it's a denser area."

At 56, Handy has seen it all. He worked in the World Trade Center for 20 years where he met his wife, a resident of Coney Island. After the 9-11 tragedy, Handy moved in with her across the street from the New York Aquarium. He wakes up every morning to the amusement park skyline right outside his window.

"The old time Coney institutions attract me, such as the Sideshow, the Mermaid Parade, the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, the Parachute Jump, the Coney Island History Project, fishing off the pier and the Polar Bears.," he says. "This year I joined the Polar Bears after photographing them for the past five years."

Handy emphasizes that the beach and the people are the two things that have remained constant in Coney Island. He particularly likes the sunrises and sunsets over the beach -- it makes it easier to take aesthetically pleasing photos, he says.

"With people it's basically emotion. I like to capture a moment in time, a very natural and spontaneous moment in time. Like if I took a photo of you right now. You're not posing; you're being natural. It's not a photo a person would see [me taking], because then they would pose, and it would change what they're feeling."

He isn't worried about any changes to Coney Island either. "You can look out the window and you can see Applebee's across the street. There's lots of chains stores coming in. It's a change. I wouldn't say it's bad, and I wouldn't say it's good, just something different and that's how Coney Island evolves," he says, pointing out the window.

Eric Kowalsky, as the only non-Baby Boomer of the five (in his early 20s), represents the next generation of Coney Island photographers. His grandfather, Abe Feinstein, is already a well-known Coney Island photographer. He inspired Eric to carry on documenting the ever-changing landscape of Coney Island through the art of photography. Feinstein's photos have captured such important moments in Coney Island's past that they can be seen at the Coney Island History Project.

"My grandfather has taken photos for about 50 years since 1962. He took photos of Steeplechase being torn down. He used to work at a camera store in lower Manhattan called the Camera Barn that closed in 1992, when he retired. Since '62 he's been photographing Astroland and Steeplechase and lots of fires that happened over the years (in Coney Island)," Kowalsky says.

On any given day you can see Kowalsky wandering around with his camera, up and down the boardwalk and through alleyways. His favorite photographs are the ones that capture an image in motion.

"I like the Wonder Wheel, the fact that it's a landmark and part of Coney Island history. The people are what make Coney Island. Walking down the boardwalk you see all types of different faces. Lots of interesting people with tattoos, freaks…there are so many different categories here," he says.
Kowalsky welcomes change in Coney Island, as long as it adds to the Island's rich culture.

"The landscape is changing and every year something new is coming,:" he says. "This year you have Johnny Rockets coming. So there's a new building coming up. It's good for Coney Island. I think it brings business. We have the Thunderbolt coming, there are always things coming. It brings money, and more people will know about Coney Island as it gets more attention."

Enough said – come to the opening reception and drink some wine and enjoy a toast with the people who photograph New York's (and the world's) favorite playground.

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