Two of my most-memorable adventures of the summer of 2015 were a Saturday afternoon, and a Friday evening, that I spent having various types of crazy fun at Coney Island, Brooklyn — which is truly a magical place where there are endless wonders just waiting to be discovered. I just love it there. If you are also fan of Coney Island, then I hope you had the chance to see Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861 – 2008, which, sadly, just closed at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend.
This exhibit was an unexpected delight; overflowing with vintage carnival ride and game props, photography spanning over 100 years, and artworks of every kind that were inspired by the vibe of Coney Island. Please enjoy a selection of my photos!
Carousels were being carved in England and Germany before they became popular in America. In 1907, the inventor William F. Mangels, who immigrated to New York from Germany, patented the overhead gears that controlled the galloping motion of the carousel horse. His design became standard in the field. Mangels collaborated with Coney Island’s best wood carvers, many of whom were also immigrants.
Between 1880 and 1920, Coney Island produced a distinctive style of carved carousel animals characterized by flamboyant decorations and expressive faces. They were the product of Danish-born Charles I.D. Looff and the wood carvers he inspired, including Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein, and Charles Carmel, whose horses are show in the photo above. Stein, Goldstein and Carmel were Eastern European Jewish wood-carvers who had fled anti-Semitism. They brought to America a tradition of carving symbolic animal imagery for synagogues, and found an outlet for their talent in the American carousel industry.
The bald eagle on this ride’s saddle (see detail, below) trumpets Coney Island as a symbol of American patriotism, while the Camel’s Arabian origin and tasseled breastplate evoke the Middle East, in keeping with the various parks’ exotic architecture. Charles I.D. Looff built the first hand-carved carousel at Coney Island in 1876, just six years after he emigrated from Denmark.
Six silver dragons form the spokes of this electrified gambling wheel. Their snakelike forms resemble Chinese dragons, legendary creatures that are historically associated with the emperor’s imperial power. As symbols of prosperity and good luck, dragons appealed to the diverse visitors who came to Coney Island.
In this painting, the distorting mirrors that clad the barker’s booth turn normal spectators into freaks, commenting on notions of perception and difference.
Coney Island, 1948 By George Tooker
Even if you did not get the chance to see this exhibit for yourself, I hope that all of my photos will be getting you inspired and exited to head out to Coney Island for your own adventures once the summer kicks off in just a few months!