Many photographers have done projects about people and characters on the beach, but not many people have done specific projects about beach lovers. That's what photographer Erica Reade has been working on for the past few years. Erica, who hails from Montreal but now resides in NYC, has been in love with documentary photography work in the same way many people these days are enamoured with the idea of capturing the moment. By surrounding herself with a number of well meaning photographers, networking, and good work she has come to do great things with her photography. She got into photography really early on in life and even decided to drop her Physics class in favor of a Photography and Darkroom class in school. Combine this with lots of travel, and you've not only got someone with a case of the shutterbug, but someone who is bound to love the documentary process.
In the Beach Lovers series, Erica Reade takes to New York's beaches on a search for intimate moments on the sand and in the water. By adhering to a classic black and white look, she uses tones and lighting combined with interesting compositions and moments to make her subjects stand out from the rest. When you look at her work, it's a stark contrast to something like the harsh work of Bruce Gilden and instead a very low profile gaze at expressions of companionship. Erica is also a wedding photographer, which simply builds into her already couples-focused project. When you look at the Beach Lovers project as a whole, it's no wonder why Beach Lovers is being exhibited at Picture Farm starting tomorrow: Friday August 10th 2017.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Erica: I grew up watching my mom capture everything around us on her film Canon AE-1 camera, and following my dad to his art shows and lectures as a young kid. In high school, I was lucky enough to be given the choice to drop Physics Class in favor of Photography and Darkroom (a choice my school later stopped offering). So, I guess you could say it was a happy marriage of genetics, luck and wanting to capture the world outside of my teenage self. I became more serious it about after moving to NY in 2006, during grad school. My first real job was at a women’s rights organization, and I began traveling all over Africa, Asia and Latin America, and I was documenting the work there and loving it. Travel fed my photography passion, and photography fed the travel. The rest, they say, is history.
Phoblographer: What made you want to get into documentary style work?
Erica: I’ve been working in the human rights and social justice field for over ten years, and documentary photography was always an indispensable part of that. Whether it’s been documenting work on the ground or teaching kids here how to tell their stories and raise awareness through their images, photography is a critical tool for change. For me though, taking photos also became a form of therapy and self-care. Documentary photography reveals both the best and worst of the human condition, and when you work in the non-profit world, it is very easy to burn out from the issues you are working.
While I do want to eventually make a body of work (or several) about issues I care about deeply, I turned to Beach Lovers as a way to remind myself and others there is a lot of love around us, despite all the shit going on in the world. Documenting the human condition has always been a part of what I do, but it can be quite isolating and depressing in social change work, so this series is a way out of that. And there’s nowhere more beautiful than the ocean to me, so it felt like an even better fit, both artistically and mentally and emotionally, when I started the series.
Phoblographer: So tells us about Beach Lovers. It's a project that documents lovers on the beach candidly, but what made you want to do it in the first place?
Erica: I started Beach Lovers in early Summer 2015. I was feeling quite stuck and frustrated with my photography work. It wasn’t going anywhere, I had gotten a number of rejections, and someone told me bluntly to ‘find my voice’ before putting any more work out there. I kept asking myself what that was, and if it was even worth it to continue. A few months after being told to find myself, I had a roll of film developed I had taken at Fort Tilden Beach, on my 35mm Canon AE-1 (later destroyed by sand and sea), and when I saw the photo I had taken of what is now known as “Beach Lovers: Silhouette,” I finally felt a light bulb go off. I felt excited about my work for the first time in a long time. I’ve long been a romantic and a lover of the beach (of which the irony of being a Canadian who loves the beach is not lost on me), why not continue to look for couples in these loving states?
I began to spend more time observing the beach-goers at Rockaway Beach and Fort Tilden, in Queens, and more recently Coney Island in Brooklyn; their bodies swaying in the waves, splayed out half-asleep on sandy towels, or chasing each other around with more sunscreen. My involvement with the subjects is one of an observer, recorder and sometimes, voyeur. We are raw and exposed on the beach, stripped of our clothes, our makeup, our status markers. As I found my voice through this series, my intention became to observe and document human experience of love and sensuality in public places, bringing a street photography approach to the beach.
I love seeing that shift in human behavior from NYC streets to NYC beaches. There is something about being on the beach that emboldens couples to enjoy more affectionate freedom, their inhibitions less hidden. Beach Lovers is now a collection of intimate moments shared by couples I’ve observed at the beach. This series is about the small moments of tenderness between couples, whether sharing an embrace, long laughs, or a lazy limb-entwined nap on a beach blanket.
Phoblographer: When you approached the scenes and the couples, you never asked for permission. Surely, you're in public so you don't actually have to. But did it ever sort of come up in your mind that maybe you shouldn’t at all?
Erica: I think about each couple carefully before I take the picture, even in the quick seconds I sometimes run by and snap, and the question on the forefront of my mind is their comfort and issues of consent. In my other non-photographer life, I have led lots of discussions around consent, bodily autonomy, healthy relationships, and women’s rights, so this has informed my thought process the entire way through. I often think to myself, would I be comfortable with my own body being shown this way if someone else was taking and showing this picture? Am I respecting her/their boundaries? LOTS of photos don’t make the cut precisely for these reasons. I don’t want to put anything out there that I do not stand by comfortably.
That being said, for so long, photography has largely been through the male gaze, and it still is. I rarely hear male photographers being questioned on what they should or shouldn’t shoot. For example, I was at a workshop this summer, and one of the portraiture classes (taught by a man) had students produce work that involved entirely nude women yet all the male models were fully-clothed. There’s nothing wrong with nude women, but it’s just so boring and cliché to me to have this double standard going strong. Why is it often so one-sided? I’ve definitely had a few people ask me about whether I “should” put these photos out in the world, but again, how many male photographers shouldn’t have taken certain photos and are some of the leading photographers out there today? I don’t even think it’s a question of ‘should,’ but a question of ‘how.’ How do I shoot these couples? Do I it with respect? Do I think about how their bodies are portrayed?
So, maybe a small part of this series is also my take on people’s bodies, all bodies, all genders. My gaze, so to speak. Part of this is showing that bodies can be shown in a variety of ways. Part of this is also putting men’s bodies on display. At the end of the day, this is about love and intimacy and fleeting summer, and in a city that can be as cynical about love as NY is, it’s about capturing a moment between two people showing each other love and affection.
Phoblographer: So while you were doing this project, I'm sure you took photos of a lot of couples and some didn't end up making the cut. For you, was the culling and editing process more about the scenes themselves or the couples? Of course, this is about lovers being at the beach, but when you look at your work, do you feel like you put an emphasis on one over the other?
Erica: During the culling and editing process, I usually mull over the questions, ‘Do I love it?’ and “Is there something that differentiates them from other couples I have shot?” Plenty of couples curl up in the same position so I’m trying to move away from that and really keep my eye open for people and positions and moments I haven’t yet seen before. I post some to Instagram to see how they are received. Sometimes I’ve been surprised. Some couples have sold in print form that wouldn’t have been my first choice; some of my favorites don’t necessarily do as well with others, for example, in my group critiques in Camera of the Month Club, the photography collective I run.
The emphasis is usually on the moment, the position, the intimacy. Sometimes it’s a humor, sometimes it’s sweetness. Some images the emphasis is on the moment, sometimes it’s the ocean and sand. I don’t necessarily have one thing in mind, I just want to find these moments that will make people smile. I don’t consider this series finished yet, and right now, I am amassing a huge collection of couples so that I can eventually pair them down to those I am most proud, and that I will eventually put into a book.
Phoblographer: People are often creatures of habit and so they end up going back to the same beaches. Did you ever find that you ended up photographing the same people more than once and during more than one shooting session of yours? And if so, did you end up sort of studying their habits after a while?
Erica: I have only stumbled onto the same couple twice in the three years of doing this series, and both times, I had to shoot them as their body language and poses were so great. I didn’t realize it was the same couple until the woman started doing a yoga pose, and I realized I had already shot them doing yoga head stands together and then her boyfriend took photos of her posing (pictured above). Otherwise, I haven’t found myself shooting the same people, but rather some of the same positions (ex. Curled up sleeping in the sand is the most common), and really pushing myself to get away from that and find other ways to demonstrate people’s affection for each other.
What I’ve really come to love about this project is that all the habits I’ve studied have shown me the multitude of ways people show love to each other. Love isn’t just heated kisses on your towel; it’s rubbing sunscreen on your partner’s back, or gently brushing the sand away from their eyes. It’s getting knocked over by waves ad laughing like kids; it’s taking long walks when you’re old and weathered and showing affection through your daily routines. It’s sitting side by side, reading in silence, as the waves lap at your feet. It’s been incredibly life-affirming to do this project, to see love given and taken at all ages, by all people. It feels like quite a privilege and honor some days actually.
Phoblographer: You've been doing this project for a number of years. Did anyone give you any sort of pushback while you were photographing them?
Erica: I haven’t had any pushback luckily. I’ve received my share of side-eyes, but mostly from other beach-goers. Couples are so often wrapped up in their moment together they don’t notice me. Some couples I have had the sense to keep walking, but otherwise I’ve had a fairly positive experience with this. I’ve only had one person recognize herself, and it was on Instagram—she was actually quite excited to see herself. It’s actually one of the small dreams of this project to have couples find themselves on the wall of a show I have, and I would love to give them their photo.
Phoblographer: So tell us about your plans for this project. A gallery show is in the works and this is being made into a book. But what else is going on?
Erica: Well the gallery show is happening soon—this Friday, 7-10PM! Picture Farm is a great space in Williamsburg, and I have wanted to have a show there for years. So it’s very exciting to have had this fall into place the way that it did, and Beach Lovers is the perfect series to finally be able to show there. I fell in love with the gallery and the work they showed a few years, before I “found my voice,” so this feels like a really sweet way to gather people to celebrate summer and love. So I am working around the clock to get this ready. I’ll also be donating 5% of all sales to the NYC Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, as they do great work to protect our oceans and provide Rockaway youth beach programs.
The book is a big idea, but I haven’t even started on really putting that together. Ideally I’ll start working on it this Fall, once the lovers have scattered from the shoreline. I don’t feel like this is a finished project yet. I still want more diversity of my couples, so I am not even sure when a book would be ready, but ideally no later than late 2018.
Phoblographer: I hate asking about gear, but I sort of have to. What'd you use to do this project? I know you dig Instax, so was any of it done on Instax at all?
Erica: I started this project with mostly film, my Canon AE-1 35mm and I loved some of the results (seen in some of the images here). Some of my favorite beach lovers were taken with that camera, on 100 ISO Ilford film. But it was a bit heavy and clunky, and way too conspicuous, and it died pretty quickly after sand and salt water jammed it at the end of Summer 2015. I then switched to a mix of a Canon EOSM digital images and disposable BW cameras in Summer 2016. Unfortunately that just got too expensive. Working in non-profit does not afford me endless film development sadly. This past summer I have shot primarily with an Olympus E‑M5, and I’ve been very happy with the results, probably some of my strongest from the series. And of course the sort of mildly embarrassing admission that some of my favorites from this series were taken on my iPhone. Not many, but a couple. I don’t think Polaroid/Instax is a good format for this series, I am an avid shooter of it, but it’s not a great fit for something I try to be relatively inconspicuous about. I’m not a gear snob, and I’ll probably continue to go back and forth between film and digital depending on what my budget allows until I feel like this series is completed.
Phoblographer: Have you found the idea of working with Beach Lovers sort of bleeding into your wedding/engagement work in any way? Like, maybe a couple has asked for you to shoot them in this style at all? I mean, people do hire you for your creative vision, no?
Erica: I’ve had a couple of people see my Beach Lovers work and then it led them to my wedding work, but surprisingly until now, there hasn’t been much of a crossover. Sometimes I keep some of my favorite Beach Lovers positions in mind when I am directing wedding couples, but for the most part, I see the two as fairly separate spheres of work.
Born and raised in Montreal Canada, Erica has lived in NYC for eleven years. She is a self-taught photographer and she is the Founder and Director of the NYC photography collective, Camera of the Month Club. She was a 2017 Nikon Scholarship winner at the Santa Fe Photography Workshops. Erica works in the field of anti-violence, youth development, women’s empowerment and human rights, both locally and internationally, using the media arts to spread a message of non-violence. Her current work focuses on the beaches in NYC. She is a beach bum at heart, and loves instant film.