In his earlier book Dreamlands, Rob Ball documented Margate’s Dreamland, the seaside amusement park in Kent, England that has been through cycles of boom and bust since the 1880s. In his new book, Coney Island, published recently by Dewi Lewis Publishing, Ball explores Margate’s American counterpart, using tintypes and color film to record the iconic Parachute Jump (“the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn”), the Cyclone, the wooden roller coaster built in 1927, and Coney Island’s crowded boardwalk and beaches. Ball pays special attention to the hand-painted, peeling signs that advertise freak shows, clam bars and carnival games, seeing them as emblems of the vivid and gaudy but fading spirit of the place.
As Mark Rawlinson writes in an essay in the book, tintypes once sold to Coney Island visitors were “so poor [quality] they had nothing to do with photography.” Ball gets better results, but his images use “exactly the same process people were using back in the 1800s along the beaches and boardwalks at Coney and across the States,” Rawlinson writes. To make them, Ball used a large format camera and developed his plates in a van parked on site and outfitted with a darkroom.
Like Margate’s Dreamland, Coney Island has been through eras of decline and reinvention, as parks age, fall out of favor and are replaced by new attractions, a process that mirrors trends in the wider economy. As Ball told a recent interviewer, “I am interested in the cyclical change seaside towns go through, how they are in and out of fashion and how their fortunes change through the decades.”