Coney Island has always been one of my favorite places in the world. One of the people who gave me a great historical walk around the island was Jim McDonnell. McDonnell, who is archival producer for documentary films as his day job, is also one of Coney Island’s best photographers and historians.
By Adam Sandy (right), Chief Business Development Officer at Ride Entertainment.
“I first went to Coney Island in 1978,” he said. “I continued to go over the years with family, but it was often just to go for an hour. We would eat a hot dog, ride the Cyclone, and leave.” A New Yorker since 1990, Coney Island has been a special place for McDonnell and he has seen it change over the years.
“I got my first digital camera in 2004 and begin to look for different things to photograph,” he said. And, there is a lot to see at Coney Island. McDonnell does an annual walk of nearly every block and looks for what’s changed – and there’s always something different. “People forget that it’s not just an amusement district, Coney Island is a functioning neighborhood,” he noted.
The Cyclone – a moving target
Due to his relationship with Central Amusements and others, McDonnell can access some unique places. When we spoke about some of his favorite spots to photograph he mentioned the obvious choice first – the Cyclone. “I get to shoot areas that not everyone can get to. I love the Cyclone because you’re shooting a moving target so you never know what you get on people’s faces. The hardest part of shooting rides is getting crisp faces on the riders.”
McDonnell also climbed the Parachute Jump. “It was an amazing opportunity. I get to climb a piece of history and it offers a vantage point no one else can see.”
Over time he has learned what works, what doesn’t and the nuances of shooting at Coney. He mused, “There is no shade at Coney Island. I have to think about where and when I’ll shoot every day.” McDonnell talks to a lot of different people at Coney Island, but he says the maintenance teams are some of his favorite. “They point out things for me to photograph that I never would have noticed.”
Shade, and the Polar Bear Club
2018 also marks McDonnell’s seventh year as a member of the Polar Bear Club, which was founded in 1903. The club gathers each week during frigid weather to go for a swim in the cold waters of the Atlantic.
“It’s my weekly reset,” he said. “If you have never cold weather swam, there’s something about it; it puts a huge smile on the face of those who get it. I’ve been doing it for seven years no matter what the weather. Every time I jump in my body is like “what are you doing to me?’ But, after a few minutes the endorphins kick in and it is one of the best feelings in the world.”
In addition to swimming the Polar Bear Club offers McDonnell a unique way to see Coney Island. “It’s another opportunity for me to take pictures of things I would not normally capture. Coney Island in the off season is a completely different environment,” he said.
The main storyline of Coney Island since the late 1800’s has been change. “You had the parks, but it’s always been a place where people are coming and going,” McDonnell noted. In addition to the three great amusement parks, Steeplechase, Dreamland and Luna Park, much of the ride manufacturing industry was based at Coney. McDonnell said, “For a time 50 per cent of the amusement rides in the world were made on West 8th street; that’s amazing.”
The baby boomers were the last generation who viewed Coney Island as a popular summer destination. People from McDonnell’s generation grew up knowing the area being like much of New York in the seventies; dirty, in some cases run down and a shell of its former self. But with the opening of Luna Park in 2010 the area headed in a new direction and that growth left some mixed emotions.
When asked about the “new” Coney Island, McDonnell said, “Tourists from out of state or out of the country love it. Locals feel it’s not like it once was. A lot of people wax poetically about the past, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but Coney Island has always been a neighborhood in transition. There’s still a lot there to celebrate, which is why it’s important.” Looking through the camera eye he seems to appreciate the constant change.
All images above credit Jim McDonnell. You can see Jim McDonnell’s 2017 Coney Island photography gallery here.