In February 2005, a thick layer of snow blanketed the beaches at the Rockaways in Queens, New York. Clouds swirled; a blizzard was on the way. Still, a lone figure struck out toward the waves, surfboard under his arm.
The photographer Susannah Ray captured this image seven years before Hurricane Sandy swept through the eastern seaboard. That catastrophic storm would permanently alter the surfing community of the Rockaways, of which Ray was both a member and an observer. Her series, Right Coast, on display through August 9 at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and collected in a new book, documents the pre-Sandy years between 2004 and 2011, when the rickety wooden boardwalk still stood.
In 2003, just a few years out of her masters’ program at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Ray took the train to Long Beach for a surfing lesson. “I just woke up and decided: I’m going to do this today,” Ray says. She grew up in Westchester County, north of the city and surrounded by water; she’d never been out on a board, but after the first lesson, she was hooked. “It had to do with the ocean, it had to do with athleticism, it had to do with the feeling of flying over water,” Ray says. “And when you live in New York, there’s a grind you fall into—surfing brings you out of it.”
Long Beach was far from Ray’s Brooklyn apartment, but the Rockaways were closer, so she started venturing out in her spare time; it took only a year or so for Ray to sign onto a bungalow share. “There were 15 to 20 of us splitting this two-bedroom house,” Ray says. “We weren’t there all the time, but that’s where we stored the wetsuits.” Ray and her fellow surfers would suit up in the bungalow, then go around the corner to a bigger house to collect their boards, which were piled high on mattresses.
Hordes of seasonal surfers descend on the Rockaways for the summer months; only the die-hards stick it out year-round. They’re the people in Ray’s photographs, and Ray became one of them. In 2005, she left Brooklyn and moved to the Rockaways permanently, following the waves.
The community is governed by the water. “The energy really ramps up when there are good waves,” Ray says. It’s called frothing: the anticipation that courses through the Rockaways before a hurricane or a nor’easter. It’s what brought people out on to the sand in the midst of the blizzard.
The photographs in Right Coast romanticize that big swell, and the culture that revolves around the tall waves and the power of the ocean. Sandy hit the year after Ray completed the series, and the storm evaporated any untempered relationship to the water. “There was this cutoff,” Ray says. “The work carries this innocence about the ocean that after Sandy, I don’t have anymore. There’s an anxiety laid into it now; I see the ocean in a different way.”
When Ray looks at the images in Right Coast now, she feels a sense of loss. The old boardwalk, which was torn away in the storm, has been replaced by “this gorgeous, new, resilient, Bloomberg-worthy piece of architecture,” Ray says. “It’s a deliberate, publicly crafted space now; before, it was just ‘the boards’—that’s what we called it.” The wooden slats may not be visually present in every image, but they inform the landscape and the culture that Ray captured at the time; one that’s now just different.
Sandy didn’t put an end to Ray’s work; in the immediate aftermath of the storm, she and Jen Poyant of WNYC went out to record the experiences of people lined up in an empty parking lot in the cold, waiting to get their electricity switched back on. In the aftermath of Sandy, community in the Rockaways transcended surfing. “I just had a moment where I realized: These are my people, and I have to document this,” Ray says.
That collection, What are the Wild Waves Saying: Storm Stories from the Rockaways, laid bare the damage inflicted by the ocean. But as of late, Ray has come to more peaceful terms with the water; her most recent series, A Further Shore, depicts the waterways of New York at their most tranquil. Together, her three works form a trilogy, spanning innocence to devastation to reconciliation.
With Right Coast hanging on the walls of the Rockaway Beach Surf Club this summer, Ray hopes to bridge some of the hurt still lingering among her fellow surfers in the aftermath of the storm. “It’s a bit of a celebration of a time gone by,” she says, “but also a testament to the continuity of this lifestyle for so many people.”
Right Coast book, $45 at Susannahray.com.