Photographer Mark Hartman recently turned 35. Instead of going on a bender or booking an extravagant vacation, he took his camera to the boardwalk of Coney Island. "I gave myself these rules," he recalled over the phone just before the fall equinox, "one camera and one lens, no tripod, and no lights." The sun-soaked portraits he shot that day soon morphed into a summer project that provided the perfect distraction from his own issues while also confronting them. The photos of languid bodies half-submerged in water and young lovers embracing on the hot sand are imbued with a sense of rites of passage. Having spent years shooting for fashion magazines and fancy travel websites, Mark also wanted to do something more spontaneous. And while he admits to being enchanted by Coney Island's colorful and peculiar iconography, he finds more than enough idiosyncrasies in the people he shoots — whether green-haired and heavily tattooed or unadorned and facing away from the camera. We spoke to the photographer about what draws him to the neighborhood and its inhabitants.
Why did you start shooting in Coney Island instead of any other Brooklyn neighborhood?
For a few reasons. One, it's a hugely international crowd because all kinds of people are attracted to it, so it gave me a diverse range of subjects to work with. I also just like the mystical quality about the place, but it was always a deliberate intention not to show the Coney Island iconography with the work. Everything is either sky, sand, or water. Even if I'm shooting on the boardwalk it's aimed towards the water. I wanted to make it not about the place but more about the people and the feeling. I had gone through a lot of personal things at the time I began shooting, and I wanted to focus on a project. I just turned 35 not too long ago, so I'm defining my life in different terms. I was thinking about metaphors of rights of passage and working with that throughout the project.
Is there one of those metaphors contained in each portrait?
Some are literal and some are not so literal. More literal ones could be considered the pictures of the couples — the idea of young love and how that changes and how your concept of what love is might change over time. Especially with the photos of the parents and the kids, there's a direct relationship to being an adult or going on to a new part of life. The less literal portraits would be the ones with the water — photographing people in water is a metaphor in many spiritual texts. If you're coming out of water, you're actually changing your consciousness. Many different religions have a lot of stories about coming out of water. The pictures of the kids in the holes have to do with differents sets of initiation into adulthood that you have to go through alone — everyone has their own set of these kinds of initiations. Other photos are working with more visceral bodies — just trying to illustrate emotions that I can't really put into words, something that has a feeling to it that people can relate to in a place that's beyond language. To me that's a successful photo.
How did you go about looking for people to shoot? Are there any particular physical attributes that attract you as a photographer?
When I walk the beach I'll do the same route over and over again, starting at the very far boardwalk by Brighton Beach. I just try to get out of my own mind as much as possible so I'll meditate before going to the beach. I'll just look for people I feel a connection to or a spark from. It might be what they're wearing, like if they're wearing a certain color or style that I respond to, or a physical attribute like hands or body. I'll talk to [the people] about what they're doing and offer to share the photos too so that they get something out of it. It's really a collaboration with the other person. It's important that they want to be photographed or are generally comfortable with it, because I pose all those photos. Sometimes it's pretty hands-on so there's an amount of trust involved.
You've shot a lot of work for travel, news, and fashion magazines. How does that compare to shooting these portraits in Coney Island?
I guess you're able to create something that offers a shared experience. It's less planned and more spontaneous, which allows more looseness. My other work is more tripod, straight subject, so with this project I really wanted to work in a looser way and get back to basics — no tripod, one lens, one camera, natural light. Just working with what I had, and making something work out of the situation. [In that way] it's similar to editorial work — sometimes you go in and it's not really the best situation.
Is there any other neighborhood in New York that you could imagine these sort of personal portraits in?
I could, but I'm just really attracted to Coney Island. I really like the energy there and it has a really cool history. I could make these photos anywhere but it has to do with the time and place, it has to do with the seasons, it has to do what I was personally going through. For a while I was wanting to do something about New York. I was kind of envious of my friends who had figured out New York projects but always told myself that everything had been done and I would have to go somewhere else to do my personal work. But that's not true — you can make work anywhere. I just gave myself that particular area to tell my own story, to tell these people's stories, and to connect with people on a deeper level.
Text Hannah Ongley
Photography Mark Hartman