I needed a day out of the city and away from the computer. Brighton Beach has become my go-to place for an afternoon of meditation and peace. I love picking up food from the Russian buffet at Brighton Bazaar, having a picnic on the boardwalk. I half-watch the Russian emigres stroll by, looking part American and half-Russian. Many still have that “Soviet” look, the men in matching sweat suits or black leather jackets appearing to imitate Sylvester Stallone. The women wear too much makeup for a stroll on the beach or shopping on Brighton Beach Avenue — too much gold jewelry.
I always go alone except during Friday nights in the summer. Then the trips are as much about the Coney Island fireworks as they are about the beach time and Russian food. I love this alone time! I can walk forever without worrying about a friend getting tired or cold. In recent months I’ve spent much of my time at Brighton Beach photographing cigarette remains for my Smokers’ Detritus series. This is a solitary project. As with still life photography, it’s best to do it alone — no distractions. Photographing cigarette butts on the beach reminds me of my time as an archeologist — walking the barren land, concentrating on the subtle differences in the soil, searching for signs of the discarded remains of humanity.
I looked up the weather and saw the day was going to be a balmy 72 degrees. I thought of Natalie. We’ve talked about doing pictures for my Intimate Portrait project on the beach, Natalie partially buried in the sand. This might be the perfect day. I sent Natalie a text and she was free. We’d both take the B train and meet at the last stop… Brighton Beach Avenue.
I always get on the back of the train. It lets me off close to Brighton Bazaar. I just missed a B at 81st Street and took the next C, grabbing the A at 59th hoping I’d catch up to the B in The Village. At the 4th Street station I ran down the stairs, just in time to catch that B. I settled into my seat and pulled out TIME magazine for the long ride. As the train crossed over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, I snapped a few photos with my phone. I’ve been thinking about beginning a new photo series based on the subway and I’m trying to figure it out. I imagined Natalie was on a train at least 15 minutes ahead of me. I sent her a text saying I was 30-40 minutes from Brighton. Ten minutes later I received a video from Natalie, crossing the Manhattan Bridge. Now I guessed she was 15 minutes behind my train. I thought it was funny we both photographed our crossing of the bridge. I sent her one of my photos.
We texted back and forth during the ride. I sent her a photo of the people on my subway car. Natalie decided the man and woman should get together. From my observations I decided the woman was a real estate agent and the man a musician.
Natalie: “I think it’s funny – an unlikely couple.”
At Sheepshead Bay, one stop from Brighton Beach, I let Natalie know I was almost there and I’d pick up food from the buffet. She texted back, “I’m at Sheepshead. I want to go to the buffet. Pickled Beets!”
Me: “We’re on the same train!”
Natalie: “Haha! Love it – thought so.”
We were at opposite ends of the train. I’m at the back and Natalie in the front. We took pictures and exchanged our views from the train. Natalie and I had both taken the same A train from 59th Street, both rushed down the stairs and taken the same B at 4th Street. What was the chance of that happening?
We met on the subway platform, bought our food and headed over to the boardwalk for a picnic. The closer we got to the ocean the colder it got. The wind gusts were strong. This was not going to be a day for the easy Intimate Portrait shoot I had imagined. I hoped Natalie would still go through with it.
Natalie spied hundreds of seagulls going crazy over the ocean. I had never seen a swarm like that, the gulls in a tight slowly moving flock close to the shore, diving like missiles into the water. They must have found a school of small fish and were now in the midst of a feeding frenzy. The gulls drifted west along the coastline. We followed them in awe before realizing we were freezing in the strong wind. Natalie and I headed back to the boardwalk, finally enjoying our Russian treats. I stopped along the way to photograph an empty Newport pack in the sand. In the harsh sunlight it reminded me of the photographs I’ve seen of Hiroshima after the nuclear blast.
The weatherman had predicted a cloudy day, perfect for my portraits, but the sky was clear. Natalie had never been to Coney Island so we took the boardwalk and headed in that direction. Even off-season Coney Island is a special sight. I like it the best without people, in the distance appearing as an apocalyptic wasteland.
By the time we reached Coney Island we were freezing. Natalie, anticipating a warm spring beach day, now used her beach towel as an extra layer for warmth. We made the requisite bathroom stop and headed along the shore back towards Brighton Beach. At least now the wind was behind us. We stopped for a moment to study the stiff foam left on the beach by the surf. I imagine it’s some kind of primordial soup — molecular bits of animal, fish, sea plants and human waste. It has the color of a sandy meringue. During my trips to Maine in the 1980s, I always called this foam “radioactive lobster residue,” probably having something to do with my frequent food comas caused by eating way too many fresh lobsters at one meal.
We passed a young red-haired Hasidic man, alone, his payot blowing straight out behind him in the wind. It was a wonderful photo opportunity but I didn’t want to disturb his meditation. I didn’t pull the camera out from my backpack. I felt the need to remember this moment — a photograph lost. I quickly took a few pictures from a distance with my phone.
As we got back to Brighton Beach the clouds finally began to move in. It was now or never for our Intimate Portrait shoot. As I searched for the right spot on the beach Natalie seemed a little nervous about posing topless. At first I thought she was worried about the cold. I was surprised. The beach and boardwalk were almost deserted. She’d be laying in a shallow pit in the sand and I’d either be crouching above her or sitting on her lap. Someone would need an x-ray telescope to understand what we were doing. I told Natalie not to worry and began digging the pit to cradle her body.
Before we began, Natalie spent a few minutes enjoying the wind, dancing and moving in the breeze like only Natalie can. She crawled into our pit and I began shooting. It was brutal! Standing above her the wind gusts pushed me around making it difficult to hold the camera steady. I could hardly see with the wind and sand blowing in my eyes. What I went through was nothing compared to Natalie’s torture. The sand swept across the beach blowing on to her face and body as if she was the Sphinx during an Egyptian sandstorm. The sand was everywhere. Natalie could hardly keep her eyes open let alone focus on the camera. The camera captured streaks of sand flying across her face, looking much like raindrops during a shower — feeling more like micro-hail, stinging every inch of exposed skin.
We forgot the cold. We were too occupied by the discomfort of the sand to think about anything else. It didn’t feel like an Intimate Portrait shoot with it’s feel of quiet meditation. This was a battle. It was Natalie and I against the elements. Somehow we kept shooting. I don’t know for how long. I don’t know how Natalie had the strength to pose. I finally sat on her lap. I couldn’t feel her body. My legs were too cold. Slowly I felt the warmth of her body, wondering if my camera’s auto-focus system was working properly — focusing on Natalie’s eyes. I still couldn’t see. Finally I had to end the shoot. I’m only willing to “torture” a model if I know the pictures will be great. This time I wasn’t sure.
Our bodies, our bags, our food, my camera — everything was covered in sand. Thanks goodness I had packed a thermos of my famous green-mint-ginger tea. We needed it. I could tell Natalie was feeling better, no longer half-naked and once again wrapped in layers, her towel now an official poncho. We headed off the beach to Brighton Beach Avenue for grocery shopping. I knew a good place for coffee. Natalie needed it.
We stopped at my favorite fruit and vegetable store. This place has great produce at amazing prices. It’s where I buy my beets, cilantro, lettuce, and the fruit I use to make jam. Everything here is so fresh. Strawberries were one dollar a quart. I bought three to make jam.
The coffee definitely revived Natalie. I’ve never seen her that jumpy! We were about to head home on the subway but at the last moment decided we needed some more beach time. We headed back towards the boardwalk to finish off our leftover food — a second picnic.
The wind wasn’t quite as strong but the air was colder now as the sun had moved behind the clouds. We sat on a bench with a nice view of the ocean and finished off our Russian salads and some delicious chicken and sausages. The food was crunchy with grains of sand. I saw Natalie and realized we looked like a pair of homeless people from the mid-70s. Her recently purchased California sunglasses only enhanced the look.
My pictures of Natalie sitting on that bench looked like she was sitting in dense fog. I realized the lens on my phone was covered with a thin layer of sea salt, collected during our walk along the surf. I hoped my portrait camera hadn’t suffered the same fate. It would ruin our pictures in the sand… the ones we just suffered for.
I stopped to take pictures of a few cigarette butts near our bench. After all, that was my original plan before I invited Natalie on this adventure. It is the subject that ties this series of essays together.