Susannah Ray: New York Waterways

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 22, 2018

Since the NYC Ferry system went into service last year, close to 3 million people have emerged from darkness to travel the city’s outer boroughs. Commuting to work or finding summertime bliss at the local beaches, they have come to appreciate the city as a vast archipelago.

Well before the ferry service began, photographer Susannah Ray, a resident of Rockaway Beach, would cross New York’s waterways by bridge to get to Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. For two and a half years, she photographed unexpected scenes that unfolded during her travels—the landscape, the changing seasons, and the activities of people at work, at play, praying, and simply being—in the water and along the shoreline.


Canoes, The Bronx River © Susannah Ray

A selection of her images from New York Waterways  is currently on view at the Bronx Museum of Arts, running through the first week of April. Her idea for the series came through her experience of being flooded during Sandy, in 2012. She went on to document the storm’s devastation in a project called What Are the Wild Waves Saying; Storm Stories from the Rockaways,  which was shown at Benrubi Gallery Info. She then turned her attention to the city's waterways, focusing on the connections people make with elements that can’t be controlled and places that are uninhabitable, as well as the pleasure people take in the city's well-maintained shorelines.


Reynolds Channel, Queens © Susannah Ray

Ray, a teacher of the history of photography, found a strong connection with the poetry of Walt Whitman, particularly Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. In an interview with the British Journal of Photography, she said, “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.”


Table, Barretto Point Park, The Bronx © Susannah Ray

Along with the ubiquitous trash and debris, she also found beauty in unexpected places. “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 [series] 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.”

Susannah Ray | A Further Shore continues at the Bronx Museum of Arts through April 8th. 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY Info 

New York Waterways by Susannah Ray (Hoxton Mini Press, East London 2017) is available here. More about Susannah Ray here
Susannah Ray lives in the Rockaways, a small peninsula on the edge of New York City bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Jamaica Bay, and JFK International Airport. This intersection of city and water is at the heart of her work. Susannah studied photography at Princeton University and the School of Visual Arts MFA Program in Photography and Related Media, and is an Associate Professor of Photography at Hofstra University.


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