Hanging in the bathroom in the pair of rooms that have, for my time here this year in New York, been as much of a home as any I have ever had, and provided for me by my dear friend and brother-from-another-mother, Piotr, an excellent photographer himself and one of the finest gentlemen in my world here, is a poster print of a photograph by Weegee, the Ukrainian/New Yorker whose 30’s-40’s era crime scene photographs once captivated my young, noir-obsessed attention. This photograph, however, does not depict the abject depths of human despair and violence that his Lower East Side “still lifes” (my own term for his eerie death portraits) portray. It is a scene of collective joy and diversion. It shows, to massive effect, the peopled beach at Coney Island on a sunny afternoon in 1938. I have become completely enamored and obsessed (again) with this photo – I, of course, stare at it many times a day after all! It must surely be the largest group portrait of a mass of individuals ever taken, for a portrait is indeed what it is.

From the foreground, which seems to be about 20-30 feet just below the viewpoint Weegee must have assumed, until the vanishing point at the top of the photo (maybe 1/2 mile away?!) the beach, and the adjacent boardwalk, are absolutely full of humanity, cheek to jowl, toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder! Almost everyone is turned towards the camera for the shot, posing, smiling, waving, what-they-will. The magnitude of such a “sitting” is almost beyond belief. How did they all know the photographer was even there? He must have disappeared into the crowd that surely must have likewise gone on just as infinitely behind him! How did they know when he was shooting? I suppose were I to google it I could find the whole story and dispel my curiosity just as quickly as it coalesces, but I prefer, for the moment anyway, to allow my blissful ignorance to add to the wonder of this photo. However it was pulled off, the phenomenon of it, its incredibility, is that from such a mass of people, what would normally be easily dismissed as a horde, a nameless, faceless anonymity, we have instead, a portrait of….thousands of individuals whose personalities, histories, joys and miseries can virtually be read from each of their visages. Were you to blow up the photo (the one in my bath is quite large) and zoom in on one after another of those visages, each resulting photo would make an excellent character study and, as I say, individual portrait in its own right. The effect is mind-boggling.

All this not to mention the absolute audacity of such a crowd to begin with. With, apparently, no anxiety towards “personal space” New Yorkers had (as they still do) literally swarmed the beach for a day’s relaxation without even so much as a towel’s width of sand to relax upon. Nevertheless, on face after face there is the smile of pure, if momentary, if maybe only masking something other than – happiness. They’ve thrown their hands up. They’ve climbed on one another’s shoulders. They ape for the camera. Some are caught trying to assume a different position for the shutter’s release. Some are distracted by the antics of others posing for the shot. – Particularly along these lines is that of one young, handsome Asian man, maybe Japanese, standing, full upright, on the shoulders of a friend and waving to the camera. He has the attention of many in the crowd. Some look with smiles. Some, possibly, with jealousy. Some, especially if he were Japanese (or even if not), would possibly look at him and his friend with unwarranted suspicion and be clamoring to have them interred in their chosen, or probably even home, country within four years and the world at war. But this was not a world at war…yet.

This is a community at play in the fields of Life, sketching a boundless perspective on  joyful release despite the shear horror of the press of the hive! The requisite silence of the photo, of course, masks the 4th dimensional dynamic reality of the moment, no doubt. It is not still, only silent. Indeed, it is morbidly fascinating to realize that, surely, the very most of they who live in the photo are now all quite dead. Likely only some of the children still remain. Would it be possible now in this Google-verse to initiate some sort of “find yourself in the Weegee photo” registry for any who may still be alive and remember that one day in 1938? – In fact, in a recent phone call to my mother that I made (on Mother’s Day) while I myself was on the beach there, she reminisced about when she, as a little girl and with relatives, visited that very beach on Coney Island one day in…1938! Could she be in the photo?! I search in it every day.

Yes, silent, but not still! Who knows what magnitude of human drama played itself out that day amongst all those human individuals! The details that the photo reveals/conceals and the personal human life that it portrays is exactly what makes it so very, very intriguing…

 

Two sisters, young women, held aloft by their respective boyfriends, all staring right at the camera, happy and in love – one couple would last out the summer and move on to other lives/loves, the other, engaged would marry only to be torn asunder by the war and his death…

A young pachuco, hands on hips, mouth agape, tough face, would go on to become welterweight champ and make a name for himself and his neighborhood…

A man, grimacing, huge jaw, arms in the air, ape-like would end up in Hollywood playing the heavy in countless B-movie pot-boilers and die in Pasadena twenty years later, a helpless alcoholic…

A man in what appears to be a crumpled fez and dark, shoulder-strapped bathing costume, apparently a displaced Turkish Bey, rolling a cigarette, biding his time in America and waiting to return to Europe to serve as a German spy in Asia Minor only to be killed later on by the Gerrys themselves when Turkey and Germany split…

A young, John Lurie looking man rushing up behind a wide-faced girl, unawares, will cover her eyes and ask her will she marry…

A kind-faced, bespectacled, greying man – a doctor who would eventually aid in the birth of the babies from no less than twenty of the couples on the beach that day!..

A wild-haired, mustachioed Romanian poet, a loner who would mysteriously end up dead that night at the bottom of the East River, never to be heard from, or asked after, again…

 

Of course there is no way for me to know any of this, but… it is all possible, and likely. And so much more! of madness, and more of sin…

We are humans after all, and joy as well as horror is as fleeting as the momentary flash of a camera shutter.

 

 

4 Responses to Life in Anonymity

  1. Dean Mermell says:

    Everyone looks infinitely more interesting in black and white!

  2. Erik Freeman says:

    Great post Freddi. I’m longing for a higher res image however so I could get into the weeds with you. Pax Vobiscum.

  3. JD bonz says:

    Lovely little meditation on a Weegee bordered world that to me is more frightening than any of his flash stark spectral death scenes. Gives me the willies just imagining being somewhere in that photo, unbearable hell!

  4. chickenjohn says:

    Oh the Huge Manatee!!!! I’m wearing a Tibetan hat right now. It makes me look regal. I have one question: did people pee in 1938? Where?

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