RAISING THE BAR
Photography by Jean Ross
Story and Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Jean Ross is a photographer born and raised in California. Jean has committed much of her career as a public policy researcher and advocate. She is committed to reducing inequality, while expanding opportunities to help promote broad based prosperity in government, philanthropy, and in the nonprofit sector. Jean led California’s premier fiscal and economic policy organization for seventeen years before moving to New York in 2012 and continues to divide her time between public policy and photography. Even with all that hard work Jean never lost her passion for photography and created meaningful work traveling and exploring other countries and cultures.
Brooklyn became Jean’s new home when she moved to New York, and she adapted to her new home, transitioning with ease to the east coast. Jeans describes her assimilation and connection to her new community. “I quickly learned that I could hop on the Q train and emerge a short time later at Stillwell Avenue. Coney Island soon became my happy place. A four seasons source of visual inspiration and adventure. A welcome respite from city life. The Coney Island that moves me is New York without the pretension or a high cost of admission. A diverse, quirky, and welcoming community that is a street photographer’s dream come true.”
Jean has devoted the last eight years to a personal project documenting the diverse communities that give Coney Island that distinct character legends are made of, like Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Mermaid Festival, and the famous Coney Island Polar Bear’s New Year’s Day Swim, and of course the Coney Island Amusement Park and Boardwalk. Jean was inspired by a group of athletes that she noticed, regularly working out on the beach just off the boardwalk at Coney Island. Jean describes her seduction. “I began photographing them in 2014, seduced both by their talent and the aesthetics of the well-toned bodies silhouetted against the Summer sky. I found myself coming back again and again.”
Over the years, Jean watched the athletes come and go, keeping almost a constant rotation of new energy and spirit. Jean describes what she has discovered through her investigative studies. “There is clearly a system, a rigor, and a rhythm that I’ve never fully understood. And while there’s a core group of regulars, the cast of characters changes based on the season, the week, and the time of day. Visitors are welcomed with encouragement and while the core group skews, young and male, it is ethnically diverse. Some of the most skilled athletes are well over fifty. These images embody all that I love most about Coney Island. sun, sand, and community. For that reason, this is an ongoing project.”
Jean’s ability to understand her subject has come from a diligent practice of carefully looking and listening with her eyes. Her public service has given her the gift of not being afraid to approach and engage the community she is inspired by. She has learned to reach other people through being an observer and a listener, as well as a brilliantly talented photographer.
IN CONVERSATION WITH JEAN ROSS
We had the pleasure of interviewing Jean for The Pictorial List, making new connections to her photography and here she shares with you her passion and inspiration.
Hello Jean, tell us about yourself.
I grew up and spent most of my life in California. Starting in the suburbs of Los Angeles and migrating northward, ultimately living in Sacramento following a bit of time in Washington, DC. I moved to New York City over 10 years ago, after deciding that it was time to shake up my life. New York is a much more interesting place for street photography than Sacramento.
While I’m serious about photography, I have a day job as a senior fellow for a Washington-based policy organization with a focus on fiscal and economic policy. I may be an idealist, but I still believe that public policies can build a more just and equitable society. I recently started working three days a week in part to make more time for photography.
What was the first camera you ever held in your hand, brought to eye, and released a shutter on? What is the camera you use now? Does the equipment you use help you to achieve your vision in your photography? Anything on your Wishlist?
Oh my, that was a long time ago. Definitely Kodak - a Brownie or an Instamatic? My first SLR was a Minolta SRT 101 in high school. I’m currently using a Nikon Z7ii. I’m not a ‘gearhead’, but I do love (and use) fast lenses. There are some mirrorless-specific lenses on my wish list, but most of what I do is with a 24-70 zoom.
In this series you highlight the Coney Island community, tell us more about the inspiration you find there. Has this inspiration changed your photography? If so, how?
I wasn’t around for the good or not so good old days of Coney Island. But as a relative newcomer, it still symbolizes classic New York. And as a native Californian, where going to the beach means getting in the car, I find joy in the fact that I can get on the Q train and get off at the beach.
What inspires me about Coney Island is the lack of pretension, the diversity, and the communities - such as these athletes - that form the Coney Island community. I came from the ambience and have stayed over the years for the community. It takes a long time to become a regular, but I think I’m finally getting there.
When you are out shooting - how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
Almost all instinct. I have a weakness for flat light and cloudy days, but beyond that I’m a wanderer not a planner.
This has been an ongoing project since 2014, tell me about the relationships you have established and the connections you have made to this community. What do you think the advantages are in developing a long term project? What would be a piece of good advice you would share with a photographer beginning a project like this. What have you learned that surprised you?
The advantage of a long term project such as this is that I know how to fade into the background and I know how to stay out of the way. I give people some space even if it means that the shot isn’t as tight as I might like. I’ve also gotten to know many of the routines. Some of the moves are quite difficult and I don’t want anyone to worry that I might stumble into the landing. I also have a good sense of which angles and views make for the best image. Showing up during covid brought people together. For all of us, it was one of the few places where people gathered in person.
The most important piece of advice that I’d share is to be generous. I share images with any of my subjects if they ask - I’m the photographer for a lot of Instagram profiles - I also share prints if there’s an image that I know someone would really like.
What surprised me the most? The core group of athletes shown in this project is a lovely group of people. They take what they do very seriously. They are very good at what they do and it clearly brings a lot of joy into their lives. It’s a very welcoming community - when beginners show up, especially kids and also women, there’s a lot of gentle coaching. The vibe is much more one of supportiveness than jockiness.
Jean, you have lived on both coasts of the United States, and you have traveled extensively, what have your travels brought to your photography?
Look for the beauty in everyday life. Photography is the best way to see how people really live. Seek out the backstreets. Tourist landmarks are great, but they aren’t all that interesting in terms of photography. I’m not a great travel companion when I’m photographing. I can spend hours at a bus station or a fishing village. There was a time when I was traveling a lot professionally. Often, the only time I had to sightsee was to get up early and wander the streets.
Do you have any favorite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
I’m a big fan of looking at other photographers’ work and have a serious photobook habit. I love and am inspired by the work of Betsy Karel. We were in a workshop together in 2010 in Salvador, Brazil. Her work displays a wicked sense of humor. I keep going back to the Mexican photographers, especially Graciela Iturbide and Flor Garduno and, of course, Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Josef Koudelka and Raghubir Singh. I’m in awe of Alex Webb’s ability to organize chaos. I could keep going.
Are there any other photographic projects you are working on, or have planned in the near future? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
In the Winter, I photograph the Polar Bears at Coney Island. Another wonderful community. I’ve started a small project on the wild birds of Coney Island. I’m not a bird photographer. During the pandemic I started walking and biking the city with a camera. While I do traditional street photography, I also return to certain subject matter and places over and over. I’m looking forward to traveling again.
In five years? Who knows! I have a number of projects and collections of images that I’d like to put in book form. I like images that speak to each other and that tell a story.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
I love my work. I’m a devoted exerciser (I also like to eat). Spending time with friends. There’s so little time and so much to do.”