06/18/16: smokers’ detritus #9A – blythe and the mermaid parade

This essay is numbered 9A. In terms of chronological time it is out-of-order. Several interesting events came before this one but I had to write this story soon after it happened. I was afraid if I waited the energy of the day would be lost. This day might have changed my art and my life. It might not seem apparent after your reading. I can understand that. If I am right it will become obvious in future essays written after this time.

coney island

I’m a big fan of Brighton Beach. I go all the time. I’ll use any excuse to breathe ocean air and eat Russian food. This past Saturday was the Coney Island Mermaid Parade.

When it comes to taking photographs I’ve always preferred cloudy days. I shoot in black & white and don’t like the harsh light of the afternoon sun. The weather forecast for the parade was “bright and sunny” – not great for my mermaid pictures. I hoped I would find a few shaded spots, maybe under the pier or up against interesting walls. If I was lucky, late afternoon clouds would roll in giving me that beautiful soft-bright beach light.

I left my apartment late wanting to get to the boardwalk near the end of the parade, a little before 3:00pm. I hoped some clouds would roll in by that time. I promised myself if I wrote about the parade the essay wouldn’t include any cigarette photographs. I couldn’t help myself and I stopped to shoot the Smokers’ Detritus outside of 202 West 81st Street. After that I headed straight to the subway and kept my word for the rest of the afternoon. Brighton Beach. Russians smoke a lot. It wasn’t an easy promise to keep!

cigarettes at 202 west 81st street

I planned to take the Q train to the Aquarium. It’s the closest station to the parade without exiting directly into the crowds. At the last minute I decided to depart earlier, at the Brighton Beach station. I couldn’t stop thinking about the poppy-seed Danish I bought a week earlier at a nearby Russian bakery. My friends Marci and Paul took me to this place, La Brioche, and to say it is amazing would be an understatement. I’ve passed the store many times but never stopped. From the outside it looks like a typical boring modern café.

No way! Once you walk inside it’s like stepping back in time. It reminded me of the Jewish bakeries I visited with my dad on Sunday mornings when I was very young. Only better! Cheese Danish like I haven’t seen in fifty years. I didn’t know what to buy? I wanted everything. I especially love poppy-seed Danish so they were my first choice. Eventually I will try everything.

marci and paul coming out of la brioche

Today I bought two of the poppy-seed Danish (just in case I had to share with mermaid friends) and some kind of spinach-cheese thing wrapped in a flaky pastry crust. Oh my god! It was in my mouth the second I left the bakery and finished before I could make it to the end of the block. Now very happy, I headed over to the Brighton Beach boardwalk.

What a day! The ocean breeze soothed my soul the moment I stepped on the boardwalk. The heat of the sun felt good on my face. The low humidity created perfect weather for an afternoon walk on the beach. I saw clouds forming in the distant west. If they never arrived it wouldn’t matter. I could enjoy today as a beach day, forgetting my cameras and the mermaid photographs.

As I got closer to Coney Island, I could hear music from the marching bands in the parade. I began to pass groups of mermaids, noticing two nearby taking selfies. There was a tall blue construction wall surrounding the new Aquarium. I could use it as a background, to block the sun for my first mermaid pictures of the day. I asked the mermaids if I could take their portrait. They were so nice! I moved the two women against the wall, explaining the light would be better there. They understood instantly and I was able to get a great portrait to begin the day. I had them write their email address to send them copies of the photos. The address ended in “columbia.edu.” Columbia University. That’s my neighborhood! Both women would be perfect for my Intimate Portrait project. I hope they will be interested. Intimate models are a constant quest.

coney island mermaids

I photographed a few more mermaids but the light wasn’t working and the clouds weren’t getting any closer. The parade was getting closer and I knew it was time to get off the boardwalk before it became too crowded to move. A woman was standing alone on the beach, waiting for a friend to join her. The quality of the light was abysmal. At that moment I decided it was time to do a portrait series on the Coney Island beach. This woman would be my first photograph. I would have to discover the light and learn how to make my expensive digital camera “see” the detail and tonality I needed in these new images. I am already involved in too many projects but as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as taking too many pictures!

woman on the coney island beach

I moved across the beach, slowly heading in the direction of the parade’s end-point, wandering in and out of the beach-goers, staring at the light on their faces – every now and then clicking off a few frames. I came upon a group of mermaids laying on a parachute – taking selfies with their camera with one of those sticks. I circled the women, hoping to find a situation worth photographing. The women taking selfies on the ground reminded me of my Intimate Portrait shoots. I asked if I could take their portrait – stand among them, above their bodies. I was surprised they agreed. I often feel I hypnotize my models to agree to anything I ask. I know that’s impossible. They must sense I’m someone to trust.

relaxing mermaids

The sun was strong. The light direct. It was difficult for the mermaids to keep their eyes open. In the bright light I could hardly see through the camera. I directed their heads to come together in a circle. It felt comfortable and natural standing, hanging above these mermaids – mingling with their bodies just as I do when standing above my models for the Intimate Portrait series. Here we were, surrounded by thousands of people on the beach yet the photographs felt intimate.

I finally got myself to the Coney Island Pier. It felt good escaping the sun. The light under the pier wasn’t as nice as I had expected but anything was better than the harsh sunlight. I stayed for a while, enjoying the cool breeze and taking portraits of the few mermaids who walked by. A beautiful young Latino girl stood a few feet away, taking selfies for at least ten minutes. I wanted to do her portrait but didn’t feel I should interfere with her personal time. A crowd gathered just north of the pier – mermaids, photographers and cheering fans. I decided to join them, hoping to find a few good pictures.

mermaid and neptune taking a selfie under the coney island pier

As I approached the gathering, I passed a lone woman, topless, sitting cross-legged on a large patterned sheet – the parachute jump looming directly behind her. It was the perfect scene. The light. The composition. It reminded me of black & white photographs I have seen of Coney Island taken in the early 1970s. I always see through my cameras in black & white but now I was seeing through my eyes without color. It was magical.

The beach was crowded but for some reason no one sat near this woman. She appeared at peace though at the same time, powerful. I was surprised she wasn’t completely surrounded by photographers. It was the day of the Mermaid Parade and every beautiful woman, especially those who are topless, are always encircled by the photographic masses. Maybe she was invisible to everyone but me? There was a ring of protective energy around her body – electricity – magnetism. I wanted to photograph her but didn’t want to break the protective bubble. What would happen? I feel people, even in crowds, have the right to their privacy.

blythe: the mermaid of coney island

I absorbed her calm as I passed and arrived to the raucous crowd, now spread out into small groups of photographers and mermaids. Mermaids in the surf. Mermaids on the rocks. Angry and nervous lifeguards trying to maintain order and safety. There was nothing for me here. My pictures are about calm. All I saw was insanity.

I turned back towards the pier and passed her again. The High Priestess. The Mermaid of Coney Island. She was still alone. The scene still appeared perfect. I felt drawn to this woman. I needed to take this portrait. It’s what I had been looking for – the reason for my entire day. As had I texted to my muse Abby earlier this week, “I’m happy but uncertain how to proceed with almost every relationship. At some point it will make sense. I might need a new friend… possibly someone who I haven’t yet met. I’m not sure.”

I walked up to this woman, through her energy bubble, moved my face close to hers and asked, “Is it okay if I take your portrait?”

blythe for the mirror project. coney island

I felt a wave of warmth flow out of her body with her positive response. I was surprised. I don’t know why. Her essence felt exactly as she looked sitting at peace on the beach. This sense of extreme warmth from any person is so rare it always comes as a surprise.

I fought the sun and the elements, trying to get the shot I wanted. Now and then I’d show her one of the images. It was difficult to see in the glare of the sunlight but we knew we were capturing something good. We’d talk in between shots until Blythe invited me to join her – to hang out for a while and talk.

I think we both felt close immediately. I wonder if Blythe is like that with everyone she meets? We spoke like old friends – about my photography and her career as a singer. I watched her face carefully as I do with everyone I photograph, watching how the light and emotions changed the appearance of her face over time. Occasionally I’d interrupt our conversation to take more pictures. We worked on some images for my “mirror” series. We’d shoot for a few minutes, stop and continue talking where we left off.

flask of sand from white sands national monument

We touched each other as we talked – to make a point like close friends do. Her skin was soft and smooth. Cool to the touch. It didn’t feel real. Blythe’s skin reminded me of the sand at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The grains of sand so fine the surface of the dunes feel like the skin of a goddess. Maybe embedded in the grains are the spirits of Indian women who once lived there. Laying on the dunes the sand envelops your entire being, cool to the touch but warming to the body. The memory of my afternoon at White Sands has stayed close to me for years.

blythe near the coney island pier

Time passed. I’m not sure how long we talked. One hour, two? Both of us had friends to meet. It was time to leave. We agreed to see each other soon – phone numbers shared. We hugged, and we hugged again before parting ways.

We text back and forth. Now friends on Facebook. One mutual friend… sort of. Emily Pope, who I photographed for my magazine VISION. I wonder if they are “real” friends or just a Facebook connection. Blythe and Emily both love Coney Island. Maybe they met on the beach? Someday I’ll ask.

Blythe and I will shoot soon for my Intimate Portrait project. I’m looking forward to furthering our special connection. I need to listen to her music. I have ideas for a video. I know we’re going to be friends.

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