|Jones Beach Dream (dunes)
by Chris Mottalini
|Jones Beach Dream (boardwalk)
by Chris Mottalini
What beach do you picture yourself on to escape an interminable morning meeting? What sandy shore do you visualize from the sweaty hellscape of the subway platform? The seaside we’re mind’s-eyeing at the moment is just as far away as our walls, thanks to two new editions from Chris Mottalini’s Jones Beach Dream series: Jones Beach Dream (dunes) and Jones Beach Dream (boardwalk). Mottalini’s images take a contrast-rich, contemplative look at Long Island’s Jones Beach State Park, a 6.5 mile stretch of Nassau County that’s known for its beaches. In turn, these photos strike up a conversation about the modern implications of the infamous mid-20th century city planner responsible for Jones Beach: Robert Moses.
Mottalini’s Jones Beach Dream series was originally photographed for a Curbed story about the beach and its connection to Moses. In early May 2017, Mottalini and writer Michael Ando spent several days exploring Jones Beach together. That they wandered its ins and outs in the misty spring off season meant all the more opportunity for Mottalini to hone in on the unique elements of the park’s design. He captured the scenes he came across on Kodak Portra film, using his favorite camera, the Mamiya 7. This special fine grain film is sought after by professional photographers as an ideal medium for shooting portraits—in this case, the moody countenance of a beach equal parts picturesque and contentious. The film’s effect is hard to reproduce on a digital camera, and the Mamiya 7 offered Mottalini the highest real world resolution of any hand-held camera. Jones Beach Dream (dunes) and Jones Beach Dream (boardwalk) were taken with the special attention befitting a manically detail-oriented park design, perhaps a nod to the complex relationship between New York and the controversial man behind Jones Beach. For better or worse, that man had an abiding impact on NYC urban development.
When he first began scouting the area in 1923, Robert Moses was a young, fairly obscure figure, Jones Beach a relatively remote, untamed territory. Transforming the unruly swampland into an idyllic escape for middle class New Yorkers soon became his obsession—and once Moses set his mind to something, nothing could stand in the way. How he eventually came to secure the land was a testament to his tenacity, negotiation tactics, and powers of persuasion. Jones Beach would become Moses’s first major public works project—at its time, the largest scale public recreation area in America—foreshadowing the brilliant ruthlessness with which he’d pursue other projects as his career progressed.
Moses wasn’t an engineer or an elected official, but he was politically shrewd. To realize his Jones Beach agenda, he committed himself to studying park planning legislature and used that knowledge to manipulate the situation as a means to his desired end. Even when the pushback was natural, not legal, he’d forge ahead. Sandbar only two feet above sea level? Moses arranged to dredge 40 million cubic yards of sand to add height to prevent flooding. Fine silver sand causing harm and havoc in the wind? Moses hired thousands of workers to hand-plant grass in the dunes as a barrier—see that wispy grass speckling the surface of the mound in Jones Beach Dream (dunes).
Money was no object for a man who always found a loophole to more funds, and no expense would be spared on the design either. From the meticulous metalwork, to the campanile water tower, to the careful carpentry, Moses was obstinate and uncompromising. He insisted on materials that had never been used in public structures before because they were prohibitively expensive. Connecting the palatial bathhouses was a two-mile boardwalk—a sliver of which is pictured in Jones Beach Dream (boardwalk)—involving one million feet of wood planks.
Moses believed himself a visionary, but the beautiful, majestic public spaces he’d build weren’t rooted to any kind of egalitarian need or empathy. Instead, they were fixed to the achievement of his own vision. As one of the most out-of-touch architects of the modern city, his public works were executed with complete disregard for low-income, minority communities. Take, for instance, the hundreds of low bridges he peppered around the island (which Chris Mottalini also photographed). Each bridge was a work of art, and each one was too low for buses to pass under. In all likelihood, Moses saw to this on purpose to prevent poor residents (often people of color) from visiting the beach. Bridges, he wagered, had more lasting power than laws. On the other hand, he equipped the park with more than 23,000 parking spaces, a vehicular bounty practically unheard of at the time. Like many of Moses’s projects, Jones Beach was designed for the automobile class, i.e. middle class white people with cars. To this day, access by public transportation is difficult at best.
Though it has a highly problematic history and accessibility issues persist, Jones Beach is undeniably beautiful. It’s also the most popular beach on the East Coast—with around six million annual visitors, making it the most popular site in the entire state system. Whether it’s remembered as a blessing or a curse, Mottalini’s Jones Beach Dream series serves Jones Beach in its complicated entirety: inviting and audacious, natural and constructed, public and exclusionary.