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Photographing the ‘Bronx Riviera,’ New York’s Unloved Beach

Wayne Lawrence, "Untitled" (2005) (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)
Wayne Lawrence, “Untitled” (2005) (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)

Orchard Beach in the Bronx doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. While the 1.1 mile stretch of beach, formed from landfill and sand shipped in via barges, was declared “The Riviera of New York” when it opened in the 1930s under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, its profile has since declined. It’s been named one of the five boroughs’ dirtiest beaches, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and some people even forget it’s there. Yet Orchard Beach is still the Bronx’s only public beach, and when summer arrives the locals who love it embrace the sandy shores.

Cover of "Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera" (photograph by the author)
Cover of “Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera” (photograph by the author)

Photographer Wayne Lawrence has been documenting Orchard Beach for six summers. And the trek for the Saint Kitts-born, Brooklyn based artist was no easy journey, as he describes in his book Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera, published this month by Prestel: “I rode the C train uptown from Kingston-Throop, switching at Fulton Street to the number 4 train. This took me to 125th Street, where I’d transfer to the number 6 train, taking it to the end of the line at Pelham Bay Park. A short ride later on a number 12 or 5 bus and I’d be at la playa.”

And what he found was a vibrant gathering of individuality that, skimming through his book of portraits, seems to have provided endless opportunities for photographs with an engaging emotion and fashion that would make any street style blogger jealous. As he writes in his book introduction:

“From the first day that I visited Orchard, I knew the stigma attached to this place was unjustified. I felt a very strong connection to the environment and the people. I decided I’d stay a while, though I had no idea where the journey would lead. I sensed it was the beginning of a catharsis, and I committed on that day to let the work be a reflection of the love, cultural pride, and generosity of spirit I witness there.”

Portraits in "Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera" (photograph of the book by the author)
Portraits in “Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera” (photograph of the book by the author)

Currently, along with the recently published book, there are dual exhibitions of his Orchard Beach photographs, one at the FLAG Art Foundation and one at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and he’s also giving a talk on November 12 at the New York Public Library.

One wonders why this is all happening long after the last sand has been washed off swimsuits and the final scraps of summer have been shrouded by the crisply falling autumn leaves, but perhaps summer nostalgia kicks in early. Lawrence has a special focus on overlooked community gatherings — such as the J’ouvert festival in Brooklyn and the world of Little League players — yet the Orchard Beach portraits have a cohesive directness to them that takes you right into this Bronx beach community.

Wayne Lawrence, "Kye, Kaiya, and Kamren" 2009 (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)
Wayne Lawrence, “Kye, Kaiya, and Kamren” 2009 (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)
Wayne Lawrence, "Adam and Pamela" (2009) (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)
Wayne Lawrence, “Adam and Pamela” (2009) (courtesy the artist/INSTITUTE)

Images of Venus from Wayne Lawrence’s Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera is on view at the FLAG Art Foundation (545 W 25th Street, Chelsea) through December 14. Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera is at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, the Bronx) through February 16. Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence is available online and in bookstores.

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