For Susannah Ray to get into the centre of New York city, she must first travel over a series of bridges and waterways. Whether driving across Jamaica Bay or taking the subway from her home in Rockaway Beach, Queens to Brooklyn or Manhattan, she repeatedly finds herself captivated by the sights she encounters – the sky changing colour above the water; the birdwatchers on the shores; men fishing near a scrap metal yard, up to their waists in waders. She sees groups of people performing religious rituals, gatherings and prayers on the banks of the river. She sees more simply being.
Ray’s image of New York is utterly coloured by its relationship with the water. So when she decided to create a portrait on the city, she decided to use those urban waterways to weave it all together. “The water serves so many different purposes for so many different people,” she says. “It acted as a focal point. The communal draw symbolises that idea of coexistence.”
She got the idea for the project in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, after recording the devastation of the storm in a documentary project called What Are The Wild Waves Saying: Storm Stories From The Rockaways. Finishing that project, she wanted to create something that portrayed the city anew – a city resilient and recovering.“Our whole community out here flooded, including our house,” she explains. “Once I dealt with the devastation of the storm though I realised that I had to reconcile myself with the water in some way.”
She worked on the series, originally titled A Further Shore, for two and a half years, exploring the shores, nooks and crannies with her Pentax 6×7, capturing the city she loves in a way that resonated with her understanding of it. Shooting on film, she believes, was fundamental to that.
“I’m a film girl,” she says. “It just offers such a rich tonal curve and these wonderful mid tones and details that I just couldn’t make work on digital. Plus, the camera itself is a nice talking point. It’s big and makes such a substantial sound that it provides a nice way of engaging with people.”
Above all Ray wanted the images to be truthful, and completely different to the idyllic clichés usually spun about New York. That meant embracing the litter and unattractive corners of the shorelines, as well as the city’s unique social and cultural interactions.
“The life I was living was very un-curated and the lives I saw so many people having were that way too,” she says. “It’s amazing how all of this other stuff is happening and is so completely different from the idea of New York as the place where we ‘drink the best coffee in the world and go to museums all the time’.
“Pictorially it’s really interesting. I saw people all garbed in white, standing up to their knees in water, placing statues of Ganesh into it. Other days I’d see the leftovers of make shift MacDonald’s picnic lying in a little spot through a hole in a fence. And while it is totally unacceptable to leave garbage behind, it still has to be in the photographs. Right in the foreground.”
New York Waterways is the fifth book to be published in Hoxton Mini Press’ Tales From The City series; when the London-based company contacted Ray about publishing her work, she says, it seemed a natural pairing.
“With this series they have been telling stories about London but from unusual or different perspectives,” she explains. “They wanted to do a something with a similar narrative but outside of London and this seemed like a perfect match. They also lean toward projects that have a lot of lyricism, and that was something they saw my work as having.”
That lyricism comes largely from the direct influence of Walt Whitman’s poetry on the project, particularly Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Speaking as a teacher of history of photography, she points out that Whitman’s work is actually woven into the medium, in ways that might not be immediately obvious.
“His version of transcendentalism gets brought up by writers like Susan Sontag and Barbara Novak when they write about photography,” she explains. “He talks a lot about that unsung experience. About a world that’s not of skyscrapers and constant traffic and congestion but a world of space and light. That’s what I want to talk about. I want to interact with people who are having that experience, in the same way Whitman was trying to.”
Ultimately New York Waterways is about finding beauty in places you wouldn’t expect, and about seeing the sacredness in a unifying thing like water and the ways we engage with it. Towards the middle of the book there is a painting that Ray found screwed onto a bungalow by the bay near her house. In a book filled with “quietness” and a fair share of white space – courtesy of designer Friederike Huber – it makes up one of several double page spreads that serve as ideal metaphors for the whole project.
“It’s of this sunset landscape with a winding river dissolving into the mist,” says Ray. “But there were all these tears across it. That encapsulated so much of what I was trying to convey.”
“It’s so easy to be dissatisfied,” she adds. “But people find respite in places you don’t expect them to. What I hope people see in this book is that there’s mystery and beauty and transcendence and a lot of possibility for communion in this water, either with nature or with other humans. There’s a lot of solace to be found in waterways, whether it’s a dirty rivulet down the block or something more majestic.”
New York Waterways by Susannah Ray is published by Hoxton Mini Press, priced £17.95 https://hoxtonminipress.com/products/new-york-waterways.
An exhibition entitled A Further Shore, featuring the work from New York Waterways is showing in the Bronx Museum of the Arts now until 8 April 2018 https://www.bronxmuseum.org/exhibitions/susannah-ray-a-further-shore