Yes, after an unusually wet and cool start to summer, it’s been hot here in Central Victoria at about 37ºC (100ºF) and too hot to write straight.
In Brooklyn such a temperature would be a near-record high, their highest ever having being 41ºC, in 1936. People there in the 1950s before the mixed blessing of air conditioning arrived, would flock to Coney Island.
Harry Lapow was there between 1955 and 1977 to photograph them.
His pictures appear in his only photography book; Coney Island Beach People of 1978. I distinguish that from his other publications, which were packages. Until 1957 Lapow, who had trained from age 15 as a commercial artist, partnered in Koodin-Lapow, with Ben Koodin directing sales, and he in charge of packaging design for R. H. Macys, Wamsutta Mills, Seagram, Startex and Rokeach, among others. They hired young Cooper Union design graduates Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel.
He then set up on his own as Harry Lapow Associates in 1960, and by the mid-1960s he was corporate design director with the firm Lehn & Fink Products Corporation, and was one of 13 founding members of the Package Designers Council.
But for a birthday gift on the occasion of his 43rd birthday, the aptly named Lapow would seem to have been the embodiment of the Mad Men cliché, a hard-driven advertising executive who, when the 1967 US Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act passed Congress in 1967, expressed grave concerns, complaining that it would “play havoc with our designs.”
The gift was a second-hand Ciroflex twin-lens reflex camera, an American mid-priced version of the Rolleicord that the company Ciro was commissioned to make for Sears-Roebuck during WW2 when of course German cameras, though desirable and of high quality, were well-nigh impossible to obtain.
A complete novice in photography, Lapow took classes, alongside his friend, Leon Levinstein, at the New School for Social Research from Lisette Model and Sid Grossman. His decision to leave the Koodin-Lapow partnership and set up in his own was largely to give himself the freedom to follow his new passion, though most of his photography, according to his daughter, was restricted to Sundays.
Model also gave private lessons, and was mentor to Diane Arbus among other big names. She and Grossman were known to demand of their students a commitment to a full and honest exploration of their chosen subject, working in series, just as Model had done before she migrated to America, with her Promenade des Anglais, Nice sequence which was published in a 1935 issue of the French magazine Regards and pictures of legs captured from a New York subway entrance, and her own photographs made at Coney Island. She told her students to “shoot from the gut.” Hers were challenges that Lapow took to heart; he devotedly pursued his theme for twenty-five years.
Extraordinarily, one of Lapow’s first photographs taken at Coney Island was soon exhibited, in 1955, in the world’s most widely-seen photography exhibition, The Family of Man. It was a picture that must have come to the attention of its curator Edward Steichen perhaps through Lisette Model who had met Steichen in 1943 via a photographer and graphic designer, artistic director of the magazine Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch and contact with Berenice Abbott, and Beaumont Newhall, also a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Lapow’s book is uncaptioned and arranged not by chronological sequence, but for visual rhythm. A supplementary note on the photograph by Tom Antoniello in October 2006, supplied by Luminous Lint, contradicts the title by which the picture was identified in The Family publication;
“The woman in the middle is my grandmother. Every year on the “Feast of the Blessed Mother” Aug 15th. My grandmother “Queen of Coney Island” would participate in a celebration. Those who came donated money, which was sent to an orphanage in Italy. Her name was Antonetta DelCore. She took over the leading role in the celebration on Aug 15,1946 . Every year, for 27 years, on Aug 15th she would participate in this celebration and send money to orphanages in Italy. As far as I know there was no other queen after her and the celebration no longer a tradition.”
Behind Antoinetta is the then 25 year old rattling wooden roller coaster, the Coney Island Cyclone, at Luna Park. By the time that Lapow started photographing there, though the throngs that packed the beach like sardines pre- and post-WW2 had thinned, Coney Island was still a destination for residents of Brooklyn and further afield for cooling off and for entertainment in the amusement parks, but it was threatened with residential redevelopment.
In the 1960s, with a boom in car ownership, numbers of visitors crashed. Developer Fred Trump moved to build luxury apartments there, established Trump Village, and handsomely profited from a series of court cases granting him residential rezoning, before construction stalled and by 1977 when Lapow, then aged 68, had stopped visiting, the area was falling into disrepair and disrepute. One of his images from that late period presents a tawdry painted facade on which an apparently naked girl perches and touts for business.
In happier times Coney Island seafront presented Lapow with a photographic blank canvas; the sand, sea and sky, rendered in monochrome, all being white or light grey. Against that are set figures almost in silhouette; children on a school excursion race in ecstatic release toward the waves while their teacher strolls in the foreground, or a girl in a white dress shyly watches as others in their swimwear appear in various postures in the shallows.
In many cases the background of swimmers and passers-by forms a frieze or a Greek chorus for a figure isolated in the foreground. Like many in the French Humanist photography movement, Model favoured the medium format and the Ciro-flex manufacturers decided on using 120 roll film as did Rollei, rather than the then more amateur 620 format.
The roomy, fine resolution square negative of the medium-format camera that Model and her students used provided the opportunity to crop and enlarge in the darkroom, where they could calmly make changes to the compositional dynamics in a considered manner after the original in-situ contingency of photographing the moving subjects. I can find no evidence of Lapow using 35mm and only suspect that he may have for the 1970s images. This is why the proportions of the pictures in Coney Island People vary, and it is apparent that this photographer, being a packaging expert, is very aware of framing and containment.
Lapow is not the only artist on the beach. Immersed in the white noise of surf, with a sea breeze muffling distant, delighted human cries, one finds oneself in a dream state that invites creativity, and right at hand, or foot, is sand, in which can be inscribed a name, some jokey graffiti…
…or for the more ambitious, the embodiment of desire…
…or a practical joke.
Lapow produced a whole series in which beachgoers themselves turn, or are turned into, sand sculptures. The low point-of-view of the twin-lens camera at waist level assists in the three-dimensional modelling of these subjects that, if photographed from eye level, would be flattened in these lighting conditions.
Even when not covered in sand, the figures to which he is attracted are invested with titanic and monumental scale when seen from that angle, and so often from close range, through a slightly long lens that in the intense glare can be stopped down for maximum depth. Certainly the prints are cropped tightly, but there is always a trace of the surrounds, other bathers or parts of the amusement rides, to lend some context and add to the sense of proportion.
The waist-level viewpoint facilitates a more candid approach, and an advantage of the twin-lens camera, especially in a time when people were less conscious of, and less likely to object to, being photographed, was that the lenses could be pointed sideways while the photographer would appear to be taking a picture of something at a ninety-degree angle to the actual subject, but still able to frame and focus precisely.
Awareness that he is a voyeur is not lost on Lapow, who hints at his latent scopophilia when he is the unseen witness of a man reading about ‘Bizarre Sex,’ or when he takes advantage of the eye shades people are wearing, or the fact that they are unconscious, or when, with a shock, he discovers a sunglasses in a hat staring back!
Is there a sense however that this packaging executive is belittling his subjects? His rare statements about the work, and his own humble professional beginnings, would indicate otherwise;
“Coney Island is like a piece of candy for me. I’ve been to a lot of beaches–Miami, Morocco, Sardinia, Atlantic City-but Coney Island is the amazing place. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to know why, but these people appeal to me. These are the unsung people.”
Certainly he discovers people in poses and situations that evoke laughter, but out of a sense of fun that pervades the whole carnival atmosphere of what is intended to be a playground, where social inhibitions may be loosened, and animal sensuality embraced. These are not pictures that could be taken now without being more sensitive to our more carefully protected personal space and sense of privacy.
That Steichen incorporated one of Lapow’s earliest photographs in an exhibition devoted to human dignity and fraternity, and because Helen Gee in 1959 included him in her calendar of Limelight gallery exhibits by more famous practitioners that year, like Brassaï, Doisneau and Louis Faurer, and a group show of other Europeans, indicates that they accepted that his intentions were respectable, and many of the 138 images in the book, in their warm affection, support that impression, as agreed by John Gabree, in Newsday,
“Sometimes the human beings who inhabit Harry Lapow’s Coney Island look less like people than like geological phenomena, mountains especially, or rocks strewn on the beach. Other times, in their grotesque poses, they are like scuptures. With their noses covered and sunglasses, many resemble creatures from Mars. Lapow creates beauty rather than capturing it. No lively creatures in bikinis grace his pictures…And yet there is extraordinary beauty in these photographs.”
and by Robert L. Pincus, who in 1981 in The Los Angeles Times reviewed Lapow’s last show, with John Brumfield and Lou Stoumen at G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles;
“A 1975 portrait of two elderly women in bathing caps strolling along the shoreline is particularly poignant; both their halting stances and facial expressions, caught unaware, are effectingly vulnerable.”
Nevertheless, Harry Lapow is a name now hardly known.