Photographers Who’ve Captured Coney Island, from Young Love to Nathan’s Hot Dogs
For over a century, Coney Island has provided New Yorkers with an escape from the bustle of the city—be that a glittering 19th-century resort or a gritty beachside amusement park. From the boardwalk and iconic rides like the Cyclone and the parachute jump to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, Coney Island is a place of endless possibility—located, conveniently, a subway ride away for most New Yorkers.
Coney Island’s diverse crowd and myriad traditions, from sideshow acts to the Mermaid Parade, make it a fascinating site like no other. So it’s only natural that photographers have continuously flocked to the beach—not to play, but to work. The following eight artists have produced images that illustrate the many approaches taken to capture the ever-changing spirit of this enigmatic place.
San Francisco-born photographer Alex Webb has traversed streets around the world, from sidewalks in Haiti to the roads of Houston. In 1983, he prowled the famous Coney Island boardwalk, where he photographed dancers, lovers, sunbathers, bored employees, and other individuals of this diverse community. A master of street photography and the “decisive moment”—capturing a scene at the perfect time—the Magnum photographer channels the vibrant energy of the thronging beach into his images.
Webb’s photographs of the summer crowd are characteristically complex, often fitting many subjects, layers, and actions into a single frame. Memorialized in vivid, striking color, they possess a cinematic quality that makes these balmy days seem otherworldly.
Urban buildings, rather than urbanites, are the star attractions in Ben Thomas’s multi-part series of cityscapes, “Chroma” (2015–ongoing). The Australian photographer captures architecture in eye-popping, intensely saturated color, editing the results so structures appear flattened—almost painterly, at times.
Thomas’s images of Coney Island include striking portraits of famous sites, from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs to the four-year-old Thunderbolt coaster. Closely cropped and presented against a turquoise sky, they make the urban beach seem impossibly serene, like a far-off fantasy. In these lustrous scenes, familiar sights become fresh, literally shown in new light. Even though he doesn’t show the beach’s unchecked activities, Thomas still makes apparent its everlasting vibrancy.
The Singaporean photographer known simply as Nguan has cultivated a singular, unmistakable style. Known for a color palette washed in pastels, he captures dreamy, serene portraits of cities around the world. So it makes perfect sense that his eye is drawn to Coney Island, an isolated world of wonder and fantasy, with giant teacup rides and pink-haired mermaids.
Nguan’s Coney Island series, which he began over a decade ago, conveys the mystique that has long imbued this place, through loving portraits of its sun-kissed pilgrims. Here is a beach where people are free to be themselves, no matter their background and identities.
No matter where he shoots, Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden has a knack for placing his viewers right in the middle of a scene. At Coney Island, which he documented from the end of the 1960s through the late ’80s, Gilden shot his often-unsuspecting subjects from close up, sometimes playfully cropping out their heads.
He framed bathers and boardwalk flaneurs tightly, highlighting bare skin to convey the summer heat, the sweat, and the unmasked sun beating down on everything. Gilden would shoot in direct sunlight, lending his black-and-white images intense contrasts that convey a heightened sense of drama. In his world, everyday people were often cast as oddballs—regular Coney Island “freaks.” The artist himself would wear unusual beach attire, donning construction boots and a fishing hat while juggling a pair of cameras.
Coney Island is but a backdrop in “Island,” a 2016 series by Mark Hartman. The Brooklyn-based photographer ventured to the boardwalk at the end of summer to shoot its crowd; the ensuing pictures have no trace of place, instead offering an intimate survey of the diverse individuals who reach these waters.
“I gave myself a set of rules: no Coney Island iconography, and I decided to use the natural environment only, sky, sand, water,” Hartman said in a 2017 interview with It’s Nice That. “The focus was on the people, the feeling and not the place.”
Though informal, Hartman’s portraits, at times, resemble fashion editorials—crisp, enticing, and dramatic. But as they encapsulate chance encounters, his images still retain an essence of authenticity and rawness. It’s this elegant grittiness that makes them particularly alluring.
Some of the earliest surviving photographs of Coney Island were shot in the 1890s by Robert Bracklow. An amateur photographer, Bracklow traipsed across the city with his camera in tow whenever he wasn’t running a stationery shop in Lower Manhattan. Known as “Daylight Bob”—apparently because he was afraid of the dark—Bracklow liked to capture the city’s changing infrastructure, focusing largely on its buildings.
His images of the beach, though, document urbanites (only white people, as racial segregation extended into Coney Island at the time) enjoying what was then a fast-developing resort destination. Bracklow captured shores dotted with people in Victorian dress: waistcoats, long dresses, top hats, parasols, and modest bathing attire. The boardwalk he observed was already home to attractions like the fortune teller Countess Habeba and the infamous Elephantine Colossus, a building shaped like an elephant. These images seem worlds away, but they make evident Coney Island’s longstanding history as a site of leisure and urban respite.
To the late Harold Feinstein, photographing Coney Island was a natural impulse. He was born in the neighborhood in 1931, and the amusement park was his childhood playground, where he could access rides and candy for just 25 cents a day. “I used to say that I dropped from my mother’s womb straight into the front car of the Cyclone roller coaster,” he once said. “When I first picked up a camera at age 15, I headed straight for Coney Island.”
Feinstein returned on a yearly basis for the next six decades. The resulting black-and-white photographs are earnest, loving odes to the seaside, documented through intimate scenes. Feinstein’s subjects—which range from teens piled together in the sand to nuns on a boardwalk bench, or adults quietly watching the whizzing Gyro Globe—speak to his democratic, ever-watchful eye. It’s clear that he always found a magic in the place‚ its people, and its pulse, which kept calling him back for more.
Lynn Hyman Butler
At night, Coney Island becomes a playland of moving lights, and Lynn Hyman Butler, for one, aimed to capture it. The New York-based photographer is known for capturing rural landscapes on horseback, yielding blurry images that resemble watercolors. In the late 1980s, roaming the Coney Island boardwalk by foot, she sought out a similar aesthetic.
Her series “Coney Island Kaleidoscope” comprises images Butler took while moving the camera, so that each frame has painterly, technicolor streaks that convey a sense of motion. Whether she shot the merry-go-round, bathers striding on the beach, or people waiting in queues, Butler’s work immortalizes Coney Island as a site in constant flux.
None of the images we typically associate with Coney Island—the sun, the rides, the crowds, the food—appear in Ming Smith’s photographs. Shadowy and atmospheric, her black-and-white scenes instead hone in on the private moments of beachgoers, from a girl caught drinking water to a father raising his child in the air.
Smith is concerned with making visible those who are often ignored or seen as invisible; while she’s photographed African-American icons such as James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, and Grace Jones, she’s also spent years capturing street scenes of black life. In the early 1970s, Smith became the first female member of the Harlem-based collective Kamoinge, which formed in an effort to boost the work of black photographers in the mainstream art world, and to challenge stereotypical representations of black culture. (She also became the first black female photographer to have work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.)
Smith’s Coney Island photographs from 1972 are dark—gloomy, even—yet they are alive with motion. Smith endows her subjects with an assertive presence, even as shadows often veil their faces.