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“Coney Island 40 Years”
by Harvey Stein
Legs in Photo Booth by Harvey Stein.
Harvey Stein, "Legs in Photo Booth"

When it comes to photo opportunities (and photo clichés) few destinations in the world can compare to Coney Island’s diverse attractions. With a personality, a culture, and a parade of characters all its own, Coney has been a magnet for generations of photographers, from snap shooters to accomplished pros. Coney Island is a visual feast and the only way some photographers can satisfy their hunger is by returning year after year for more.

Harvey Stein will be the first to admit it. In fact, in his heartfelt introduction to his new book entitled Coney Island 40 Years, Stein says, “I am unable to purge myself of it...it’s haunting and beguiling, ever changing and yet, at its core, the same.” Stein should know. Apparently his first Coney Island book, which covered the 27 years from 1970 to 1997, wasn’t enough. His new one, which spans 1970 to 2010, essentially continues his love affair, except this time it’s all in black and white. My first impression was that this lack of color might actually enhance pictures of old folks sunning themselves on the boardwalk, or shots of lovers on the beach, fishermen on the pier, or a physical fitness nut doing one-armed pushups. But black and white mermaids? I prefer them with blond, flaming red, or gold-specked green hair. Maybe the photographer’s intention was to view mermaids from a different perspective without being distracted by living color. Still, for me, color would have added another dimension to the fantasy.

In any event, Coney Island 40 Years is organized in much the same way as the first book– in sections devoted to areas such as the boardwalk, amusements, the Mermaid Parade, workers, and the beach. It’s a logical way to look at the essence of Coney Island because in this case the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. What it doesn’t do is show the passage of time since there’s no chronological order– just a timeline in the back with some fun tidbits of trivia.

The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile by Harvey Stein.
Harvey Stein, "The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile"

The images that reflect the passing years are among my favorites: “Looking at the Thunderbolt” (1990) shows the remains of the roller coaster immortalized in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Coney Island’s decay is also evident on the next page in the 1997 photo of the abandoned Thunderbolt’s weed-filled track facing a photo of its still in use rival, the Cyclone. I liked the surprise and humor of “Legs in Photo Booth” (1974) and wished there were more images like it. The hard stare of the “Bathroom Attendant” (1980) is palpable. In “Slide Ride Ticket Taker” (1971), the sign says, “25 cents, five rides for $1.” One dollar! I wished there were more like this one, too. I wondered what had become of the two tough looking kids in “Beware of Dogs” (1983). And, besides memories, the photo of the masked “freak” in the recently shuttered “Shoot The Freak” (2007) paintball game is all that’s left of it.

What I found distracting was how some images in my copy of the book weren’t reproduced as well as others. This inconsistency was evident in “Seven People and Helicopter” (p. 64) which lacks contrast while “Man Fishing and Child” on the facing page looks fine. Other images online have normal contrast and tonality compared to some in the book.

Stein’s book is like a Coney Island roller coaster; it has its ups and downs but is mostly a smooth ride. It’s best at documenting the sea of humanity and craziness that is Coney Island, whether it’s mermaids parading on the first day of summer, Polar Bear Club members and wannabes jumping in the icy Atlantic on the first day of the year, or the quest to win the Nathan‘s hot dog eating contest on July 4th. And with Coney Island on the cusp of a major facelift that will no doubt remove the funkiness in favor of the Disneyesque, Harvey Stein’s Coney Island 40 Years may become the last good look at a way of life that is as satisfying as a Nathan’s hot dog and fries. We’ll have to wait and see whether “it remains at its core, the same.”

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Coney Island: 40 Years, 1970-2010, by Harvey Stein,

Schiffer Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-7643-3796-3.

214 reproductions, 239 pages $49.99

“Coney Island 40 Years”
by Harvey Stein
by Norman Borden

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