Coney Island has been a magnet for creative types for decades, most of all photographers, who have long been drawn in by its aura of mystery and have in turn cultivated a kind of mythology surrounding it.
The seaside amusement district is Brooklyn’s last barricade before hitting the Atlantic, and its peripheral geography is mirrored in its social make-up: people on society’s margins and fringe subcultures, who rubbed shoulders with families visiting the beach and teenagers on dates. This eclectic micro-population caught the eye of many photographers, from Bruce Gilden to Harold Feinstein to Harvey Stein.
Another name on that list is Jerry L Thompson, a photographer and writer who was also Walker Evans’ principal assistant in the 1970s. Thompson’s photographs of Coney Island are being presented together for the first time in an exhibition in Camden, London, over 50 years since they were taken.
The exhibition has been staged by Rory McCartney and Charlie Morgan, who came across Thompson’s work while researching for their book Heated Words: Searching for a Mysterious Typeface. The book traces the origins of “an elusive iron-on Old English font”, which appeared in two of Thompson’s photographs from 1973, McCartney recalls, adding that it is “the earliest documented example of this particular gothic-pop typeface”.
“Through conversations with Jerry, he told us more about his unique documentation of Coney Island’s communities, all expertly shot and painstakingly printed in the early 70s.” Among some of people who posed in front of Thompson’s 8×10 large format camera were “proto-hip-hop teenagers, hippies, fun fair workers and young couples in love,” McCartney says. “Jerry’s Coney Island images tells the story of subculture.”
McCartney situates Thompson’s Coney Island images within a broader canon of street photography. “His instinctive approach to street photography is indebted to legendary photographer Walker Evans,” he says. “Jerry was his assistant for the last three years of Evan’s life (from 1973–75). The deep, rich tonal quality of the Coney Island prints are a likely product of this apprenticeship, which occurred during their creation.”
The accompanying exhibition catalogue features an in-depth essay by Thompson, in which he reflects on the “social and economic shifts that make Coney Island unique”, according to McCartney – shifts that Thompson was around to witness with his lens. “By chance, I was there,” Thompson says. “I saw those faces, and they became my pictures.”
Coney Island 1973 runs at Corner 7, London from February 1 – March 3; corner7camden.com