Photographer Erica Reade has been a regular visitor to New York’s beaches ever since she moved to the city in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she was struck by photographic inspiration there. In May 2015, she began shooting a body of work that would grow to become Beach Lovers, published this year by Daylight Books, thanks to what she calls “a very happy accident, actually.”
“I was feeling fairly lost with the direction of my photography, and nothing I had been shooting until that point really excited me,” Reade told Hyperallergic. “On Memorial Weekend 2015, I looked up from my towel to spot a couple sleepily embracing on their towel at Fort Tilden Beach. It was a really beautiful moment, and I couldn’t stop watching them. I took their photo and finished the roll of film in my camera over the following weeks with other couples I spotted, curious to see what I was capturing.”
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“It was really mesmerizing to look at the ways bodies and intimacies blended in with the sand,” she said.
Once Reade had the film developed, she knew she’d found something, and continued to hone her intention to capture couples cozying up or simply lazing about by the sea. Since then, Reade has made innumerable trips to New York’s beaches, visiting three to four times a week and sometimes more in the summer months. The majority of her time has been spent taking photos up and down the Rockaway peninsula as well as at Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis beaches.
Reade also took trips to Coney Island for the series, and in some images the iconic rides of the amusement park are visible in the background. Now, 66 of her black-and-white photographs have been collected into a book that meditates on moments of insularity and intimacy in highly public spaces.
“I chose to stick with black-and-white photography for its timeless feeling,” Reade said. “I felt the normally bold, bright summer colors we see at the beach distract from the emotions and intimacies I was capturing.” Reade cited the influence of the black-and-white art form in the work of other New York beach photographers, such as Harvey Stein, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Vivian Maier.
That candid tradition also includes some fine lines around privacy and consent — even as her subjects seem to enjoy canoodling in full view of the sun and other beachgoers.
“Instead of trying to push the limits of privacy, I was trying to uncover another lesser-seen side of New Yorkers,” Reade told Hyperallergic. “A slowing down, an opening of vulnerability, a joyfulness at the beach less observed in other places … People were so enthralled with their partner that I was rarely noticed. I got away with getting very close to couples without actually disturbing their moment, or making them feel uncomfortable.”
Reade describes the moving experience of observing casual intimacy, such as brushing sand off someone’s back or a long kiss under the boardwalk by two teenagers.
The finished work is a summer-ready tribute to beach romance. For those who can get shoreside, we asked Reade, a seasoned professional, about the ins and outs of New York’s beaches. Unsurprisingly, Reade’s beach bag always includes at least one camera, but she also packs reef-safe sunscreen, a beach blanket, snacks, and sometimes a frozen can of wine or two.
“I love Coney Island because it’s as chaotic and lively and colorful as New York can get in the summer — though admittedly, I prefer to swim in Fort Tilden and Rockaway,” said Reade. “My go-to beach is Fort Tilden, as it provides one of the few New York experiences the other beaches don’t; no concession stands, spotty cell service, lots of nature, peace and quiet, so much less chaos. A rarity amongst the city’s beaches.”