A few months ago, Ward Roberts (a photographer and good friend of ours) popped up in our inbox with a new project he was calling Flotsam — like flotsam and jetsam, trash in the ocean. It was a book of photographs taken at Rockaway Beach, a big stretch of white sand in the Queens neighbourhood of the same name. As Ward's work so often is, Flotsam was gentle, attentive, and peppered little easter eggs for those who looked close and long enough. He takes good care of his subjects, whether they're human beings or beaches.
Rockaway is a popular hangout, it gets bumper-to-bumper in summer, but Ward made it look like a secret: we see more skyscrapers than beachgoers. There's been countless books of Rockaway portraiture published, full of photographs of New Yorkers laying out, but Ward's interest was really in the place itself: the effects of Hurricane Sandy, efforts to rebuild, and wider gentrification.
We rang him up right away to speak about it, but we're only now getting to share the pictures with you, months later — hope you don't hold that against us. Since our conversation, Flotsam made its way out into the world in print, and Ward filmed a little video to give you an idea of what went into making the pictures. It took a lot of waiting: for trains, for the sun, for planes to pass overhead just-so (Rockaway is only a few kilometres from JFK, separated by Jamaica Bay). We're sharing that video here today, and the conversation we had between New York City and Melbourne all those weeks ago.
Congratulations, you really don't stop making great work.
Thank you. I guess I'm just a little bit OCD or something.
Tell me about this beach. Do you live nearby?
No, I live in Williamsburg which is probably around about an hour away. But I used to live in Bushwick which was about only about 30 minutes away. It's a very bizarre beach. Have you ever been?
No, I've never been. From the look of your pictures, it doesn't really make sense in New York. It feels like it's from somewhere else.
Yeah, it is a strange looking beach, especially for someone who's used to Australian beaches. Not only that, there's so much history to it. I'm trying to find the words for how people feel about Rockaway... it's almost like the beach is a celebrity and people are obsessed with it. Obviously The Ramones wrote a song about it, and a few celebrities have moved out there recently. People are incredibly passionate about this beach — especially if they grew up in Brooklyn. I dated someone who felt like Rockaway was their DNA. It's one of the most important locations for them in New York.
All of these high rises in the background, are they residental?
Yeah, a lot of people live there, but it's one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York. There's an interesting dichotomy at the beach, there's this party energy, a lot of excitement and drinks and tanning and worshipping the sun, but then there's also this undertone sadness, because of gentrification. There's a lot of commission flats lining the beach, but more and more people are building white picket fence houses where they can have a wife and kids. So there's an incredible amount of hardship and perseverance, then these shiny new American Dream houses. For me, it's very bizarre.
Were you living in New York during Hurricane Sandy?
No, I was in Melbourne. I haven't seen Rockaway beach before Sandy, my whole experience has been as it's being rebuilt and gentrified. You lose the soul of a place as that happens. I can imagine a Wholefoods there in five years or so. If you've ever gone to Docklands, in Melbourne, it's like that. It's creepy. It's man made. Flotsam was shot over two summers, 2014 and 2015, and still, from Sandy, there's rebuilding to be done.
And now it's 2017, so you waited to share these.
Yeah I waited, I waited quite a while to release the series. So many people were just saying get it out already!
You never shot towards the water, only back towards land. Why was that?
I kind of liked the idea of it being a bit of a tease. And not necessarily feeling like I needed to reference where in the world it was. It looks like it could be in Iraq, it feels a little bit like another planet. To me, it's almost a war zone — especially in some of the earlier images [that didn't end up in the book], there were a few sandstorms, which looked so alien.
You've made it seem very vast, in all directions, but so sparsely populated.
It actually gets really packed out, but I was able to really separate people just by moving the camera and finding the right angle. I found that challenge quite enjoyable. It seems almost like a videogame where you have to move things around.
Is there any secret you'd like to tell me about these pictures?
Well, I will say that they need to be viewed on a larger scale. There's different elements that don't really show up on platforms Instagram. There's planes flying overhead, and I tried to get the tiny shadows of planes, or play the the human form off the shape of a plane in the sky. And the giant cigarettes!
They're so funny.
It's piping, or drainage I think. They're pretty ridiculous.
I just zoomed in on a picture, and I can see yellow goggles quite sadly discarded.
Yeah, there's all those little nuggets. In one of my favourite photographs there's a girl with the yellow bucket, and if you look to the house on the left, there's a plane flying above it. Then, if you look back to the beach, there's a group of people with a cloud right above them. I was waiting for the cloud to get into the centre of the image, and then I was waiting for plane to match up, almost suggest the boxiness of these particular places.
Thinking very hard.
Yes, very obsessive!
Ward Roberts' Flotsam is available now through Atelier Éditions.