The ability to observe is a fundamental skill of any photographer. To be astute to your surroundings and capture that which others may overlook is what makes some of the greatest bodies of work so successful. For New York-based photographer, Susannah Ray, this process can sometimes take years: “I am often interested in things I see but don’t immediately know what they mean photographically. So I don’t rush, I just tuck the ideas away until they form into something or coalesce in some way.”
This is exactly what happened with Susannah’s latest book New York Waterways. Having lived in Rockaway Beach (part of the borough of Queens in New York City) for 13 years, she spends her time surrounded by water with the ocean on one side and the bay on the other: “The culture of this area is very water-centric, lots of swimming, fishing, boating and surfing.”
In order to get anywhere in New York City from the Rockaways, you have to cross a series of bodies of water. Susannah would take the subway over Jamaica Bay and, after having her daughter, drive by the boats that frequent the Bay seeing “fisherman on bridges, birders walking by the marshlands, people making religious offerings on small beaches, swatches of river behind concrete plants and highways, the city skyline rising over the New York harbour.”
“I tried to do a series on birders, which ended as quickly as it began,” she explains. After Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways area, Susannah completed a project on the recovery, documenting the water in its renewed calm. It was only upon completion that Susannah realised the connection between all these convoluted ideas she had been storing up: the water.
Initially shooting a series entitled A Further Shore, (which is currently on display at The Bronx Museum) she set about capturing the mystery, joy, transcendence and richness of the places and faces upon and alongside the water. It was after working with publisher Hoxton Mini Press that the project inherited its current name New York Waterways. The resulting series is beautifully calm in its documentation of this little-known area. Cool blues and greens are broken by the artificial reds and oranges of the boats and jetty systems. Described as an “urban photography book”, it is at odds with what we have come to expect from the gritty images associated with our cities.
Each photograph portrays the shorelines Susannah knows as well as ones she doesn’t, however, the people are all strangers. “I was grateful at how readily the subjects would allow my photographing, I feel it came from our mutual connection to the water,” she tells It’s Nice That. The book’s cover was born out of one such interaction when Susannah accompanied Rondi Davies, the organiser of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim. She and another volunteer decided to dive in and accompany one of the competitors on the last length of their swim. “It was a divine moment,” Susannah recalls.
New York Waterways explores a side of New York City that is central to Susannah, but not known by most. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s crossing Brooklyn Ferry, (which is included as an insert) the photographs pull together a “broad array of observations, understanding that the breadth of life is interconnected” with the water, in this case, joining us all.
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