Tripping the Lights Fantastic

Inspired by the extremes on the streets of New York, photographer Joanna Tully has created composite digital images that reflect a world where values and basic human dignity are in question.

Amidst the backdrop of the financial market collapse, a homeless man’s sarcastic indictment of those who created the mess takes center stage. Originally from Indianapolis, Ron Martin makes his feelings known in 50-foot stature on a billboard – no longer able to be ignored. The image upholds his dignity while forcing an acknowledgment of his views.

These images will be on view at Hopewell’s Gallery 14 Feb. 13 through March 15.

Joanna Tully is a native Brooklynite, just like me, and a few years ago, when she made a series of images about Coney Island, I accompanied her on a Coney jaunt. Here’s what I wrote about her then:

Before there were movies, there was Coney Island. Alternately called “Sodom by the Sea,” “Poor Man’s Riviera” and “The People’s Playground,” it’s where both the hot dog and the roller coaster were invented. During Coney’s heyday in the early 1900s, people from all over the world came to America’s premier amusement park.

The name Coney comes from the Dutch word konijn, for rabbit. As with other Long Island barrier islands, the spit of land at the southern tip of Brooklyn was overrun by the burrow-dwelling mammals.

“The pennycandystore beyond the El/ is where I first/ fell in love/ with unreality/ Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom/ of that september afternoon/ A cat upon the counter moved among/ the licorice sticks/ and tootsie rolls/ and Oh Boy Gum,” wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti in his second collection of poems titled Coney Island of the Mind.

George C. Tilyou, who developed one of Coney’s first amusement parks, Steeplechase, wrote, “If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.”

Indeed, the story of this peninsula is one of development. It was, in its first phase, a seaside resort with grand hotels. The Manhattan Beach hotel was considered the most glamorous of its day, and one, the Elephant Hotel, was in the shape of a giant pachyderm. It was one of the first beach resorts in the U.S., along with Atlantic City and Cape Cod.

As subway access improved, it became a place where day-trippers could escape the heat of the city’s tenements. The first carousel, with hand-carved wooden horses, was built three years before the invention of the light bulb and kerosene lanterns were used to illuminate it at night.

Luna Park, Steeplechase and Dreamland were the fantastic developments that made all of Coney Island an attraction before Disneyland was ever imagined – even before Walt was born. The boardwalk was added in the 1920s, and in the coming decades, the beach was so packed with people, one could barely see sand.

When air-conditioned movie theaters brought another form of summer comfort, it signaled the beginning of Coney Island’s decline. A series of fires caused the closing of many of the parks, and the suburban flight from the city lessened the appeal of the region. It didn’t help that Robert Moses separated the beach from the community with the Belt Parkway and razed the neighborhood to erect high-rise, low-income housing. (The low-income housing is now named Luna Park, its mammoth flat brick façade a striking contrast to the Bavarian frills of the former amusement park.)

In the 1990s, a new wave of immigrants discovered Coney, and it became lively again.

Astroland – “New York City’s largest amusement park,” built just a few years before the last rides at Steeplechase were torn down – is the latest victim of the wrecking ball. Home to the world-famous, if rickety, roller coaster the Cyclone, the park is in its last season. Thor Equities bought Astroland for $30 million in November, with plans for a $1.5 billion entertainment and amusement district, complete with a luxury hotel and condominiums.

“Astroland has been in place all my life,” says Princeton’s Joanna Tully, a native of the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and a former Daily News photographer. “For my entire life, Coney Island has been in need of repair; developers have come and gone.”

Astroland’s demise represented an opportunity for a photojournalist. She knew she could preserve a part of the nation’s iconography by capturing it on film.
On a sunny Friday in late March – perfect weather for a stroll on the boardwalk in Brooklyn – Ms. Tully escorted me on a tour of the region each of us had first cherished in childhood, many years ago. When Joanna was 9, she convinced two of her friends to steal away to Coney Island on $20 “borrowed” from their parents. They bought cotton candy, rode the rides, and had to beg a policeman to let them back on the subway at the end of the day because they’d spent their last dime. “It was every child’s dream,” she says of that adventure.

During the one-hour-and-10-minute car trip from Princeton, Ms. Tully discussed how she wanted to tell the story of Coney Island in a situation of flux. She wanted to capture the “nostalgia for all the souls who have walked the boardwalk over the years… I like the ethereal and spiritual quality of the image, and I wanted to preserve it in an exquisite way. I wanted to bring back the beautiful aesthetic quality from the grit.”

Her interests lay in the men and women of advancing years on the boardwalk, their “great classic faces” that tell all.

In her artist’s statement she writes, “I used one type of film to photograph the grand old relics, and another to capture the contemporary feeling on the boardwalk today. In this way I was able to mirror the imminent transformation of Coney Island. The present slides into the past, leaving the viewer with a sense of Coney Island as it used to exist.”

“Coney Island is a place where people with a few bucks can still come,” she says. “It’s OK to renovate it and make it more pleasing, but don’t throw out the funky elements” that add to its charm.

As we exit the Belt Parkway and near Stillwell Avenue, the Parachute Jump – “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower” – becomes visible, like a great symbol of a Brooklyn childhood jutting into the sky. Painted a bright orange these days, the ride is no longer operational. It once took its passengers to the top, where the parachutes burst open before the gentle descent – tame by today’s standards, but wildly exciting in its day. The Parachute Jump was originally built for the 1930 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park, Queens, and later moved to Steeplechase Park. It is all that remains of Steeplechase.

Electricians, handymen and painters are out on this early spring day, prepping the rides for an April 1 opening. Ms. Tully notes that the batting range and go-carts have already been demolished. The Wonder Wheel and Cyclone were declared New York City Historic Landmarks, and will be saved for the time being. The Surf Room hotel and Henderson ballroom, she points out, do not have landmark status and will probably go.

Walking along Bowery Street, an alley behind Astroland, we pass the Eldorado arcade, where third-generation owner Scott (who preferred not to give his last name) is looking forward to a good season (it runs through Labor Day). As for the development, he says he believes condos and amusements can coexist, although he points out that those paying $2 million and upward to live here may not be happy with the “hood rats.” Even now, he says, those living in the low-income housing complain about the noise from the rides.

Born in 1962, Scott has lived here all his life and still appreciates the views from the boardwalk. He remembers some of the rides from the ’70s that were torn or burned down, such as the Tornado and the Bob Sled. “Things changed in the ’80s, Coney Island got smaller,” he says. “People still came, they went on rides and would go on the beach. A lot of people think it’s junk or garbage out here – and I’ll grant that some things are not that great – but we take pride in our place, and I keep it nice.”

Eldorado’s bumper cars were purchased from an Italian manufacturer by Scott’s father and grandfather. During a manufacturer’s rep’s recent visit, Scott was told his cars look better than the 2-year-old cars in newer amusement parks. “Look at the Wonder Wheel,” says Scott. “It was built in 1920, and it’s still going. Astroland is well run. The Cyclone was built in 1927, it looks good, it runs good, and now it’s considered vintage, like a Ford Mustang. To me, that sums it up; we need someone to invest in it and not take it away.”

To one of the other business owners, Coney Island is the “last bastion of free enterprise… you start small, work you’re a- off. Now, if you’re not corporate, you can’t touch anything in America. Brooklyn (where real estate prices have gone through the roof in recent years) is out of control.”

On the other side of Bowery Street, rides like Waterflume and Tilt-A-Whirl are getting spruced up with paint and electrical tune-ups. The ponies on the merry-go-round are blue, pink, yellow and green, and the tea pot and tea cup ride has a sign at the entrances that reads “Hey kids!! Mom and Dad can ride too!!” (Hard to believe Mom and Dad can fit their bums onto those little seats on the firetrucks.)

“I love Brooklyn, there’s no place like it,” says Ms. Tully as we walk up the boardwalk, where the rocket advertising Astroland – once a futuristic symbol of the space age, now a relic – is mounted atop a food vendor. At Ruby’s bar, the walls are lined with vintage photos of Luna Park, Dreamland, Steeplechase, the boardwalk and all of Coney Island. You can almost taste the French fries, feel the grit of the sandy clams in your teeth. One of the men moving chairs tells how he’s worked here 51 years. Although there is a Coney Island Museum – it was closed the day we visited – Ruby’s is a living museum, and it is one of the businesses that has been given a new lease by Thor Equities.

We pass the site of the Thunderbolt ride, torn down during the Giuliani administration to protect public safety the day before it was to have achieved landmark status, according to Ms. Tully. She reminds me that this was where Alvy Singer, the Woody Allen character in Annie Hall, grew up, and the house shook, rattled and rolled all day long as the roller coaster made its rounds.

On the pier, we chat with recent immigrants fishing for “striper” (striped bass). Then we head up the boardwalk to a boarded-up, graffiti-covered Child’s restaurant. Ornately carved with King Neptune and fish, it was one of the jewels of the chain in its day, and there are rumors of its being reopened with the redevelopment. Ms. Tully comes here to shoot some of the members of the Arctic Swim Club, and one of her subjects, “Banjo,” is out sunning himself. “They call me Banjo because my eyes are like banjos,” he says with a twinkle.

Two other men out sunning talk about the restaurants they still like in Coney Island – Carolina and Garguilios. They do not fish but like to eat the catch, and list some of the other fish that can be had here: skate, sea robins, flounder, fluke, bluefish, scrod, “and porgies are coming back.” They lament the recent closing of Lundy’s Restaurant in nearby Sheepshead Bay, once the largest restaurant in the world.

As she makes her final shot for the day, Ms. Tully says, “I don’t manipulate with Photoshop, but I use film and lighting to interpret the scene so it doesn’t represent reality. I want to respectfully pay tribute to the history of the place. I like the spiritual quality… people turn to apparitions in the grain.”

Indeed, Coney Island’s wonders have attracted the eye of many a photographer and artist. Joanna Tully is not just another photographer documenting its place in history – she shows us not just what is there, but her memories of its past, her dreams for its future, and, perhaps, too, a kind of a vision of what it will never be – a “Coney Island of the Mind.”


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6 Responses to Tripping the Lights Fantastic

  1. Jeremy says:

    Can’t wait to go see this show! The artist’s prior work looks really compelling too:

    http://joannatully.com

  2. Jack Dube says:

    It was probably a typo, but it was the Worlds Fair of 1939 not 1930 as shown in the article.I would have ignored this, but it makes me nine years older. At my tender age, I cannot afford the additional years.

  3. Jack Dube says:

    It was probably a typo, but it was the Worlds Fair of 1939 not 1930 as shown in the article.I would have ignored this, but it makes me nine years older. At my tender age, I cannot afford the additional years.

  4. Jacqueline Riviere says:

    I absolutely love this picture. It is truly amazing how the artist was able to capture the hard reality of our country’s financial status and the effect it has in the city. I admire the symbolism and thoughtfulness. Thank you for your brilliance..

  5. Jaquelin Ward says:

    Whenever I view this artist’s work, I am impressed. Her work is thought provoking. It really taps into my thought and emotions, makes me think about what we face in this economy. Great work!

  6. Valerie Chaucer-Levine says:

    Joanna’s work IS compelling and thought provoking. It is an honor and a thrill to be exhibiting in Gallery 14 with her and Marty Schwartz. So many very strong images that go so far beyond just being visually pleasant to view. Although visually, the images are stunning, they pack a punch.

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