© Douglas Ljungkvist
Upon first viewing, Douglas Ljungkvist’s new book, Ocean Beach, is a visual chimera; equal parts photojournalism, classic landscape photography and tourist brochure. But for Ljungkvist, there was one very simple guiding principle behind the photographs he took in Ocean Beach, New Jersey, over the course of four years: beauty. And while Ocean Beach is on one level a poignant testament to Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of a small seaside community, Ljungkvist never loses sight of that beauty.
Ljungkvist first came to this quaint part of the Jersey Shore in the early 1990s thanks to a then-girlfriend whose family had vacationed in Ocean Beach for decades. Despite initial skepticism, he found himself captivated by the tiny cottages reminiscent of those he saw during his own childhood holidays on Sweden’s coast.
His initial love affair with Ocean Beach would span ten summers but eventually fell by the wayside when he moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York. A burgeoning photography career and family commitments meant that more than a decade would pass before he would return. Then, searching for a new project that would take him outside of his “urban comfort zone,” Ljungkvist remembered Ocean Beach.
In 2009 he began working on the book, which Kehrer Verlag will release in September. What attracted him to the project initially was the repeated patterns, the colors, the shapes. He flirted with the idea of doing portraits of each cottage’s tenants, but soon scrapped that and turned his attention to what he saw as a visual treasure trove: the cottage interiors. “Wood paneling, kitsch decorations, a lot of places that felt like they were stuck in a different decade,” he laughs.
Focusing on color, form and space, he shot interiors and exteriors with an emphasis on “high-key photographs allowing lots of white in the colors.” The project grew as the years passed; Kehrer Verlag picked up the book and they were ready to go to press. Then the storm hit.
Ljungkvist’s initial reaction to news of Hurricane Sandy was that he didn’t want to add any post-storm images to the book. After all, it was already finished, and he didn’t want to compromise the cohesiveness of the work. The esthetics were paramount. If the palette was too different from the previous images or the results threatened to tip the work too far into the realm of documentary photography, Ljungkvist feared diluting the entire book. At first his publisher agreed, but once Ljungkvist was able to get back to the beach and start working, they both quickly reversed course. “I realized I would be able to make photographs that were similar enough esthetically. We agreed that the storm was too important not to include in the book and that it would present a rare context of photographs from a disaster area by having photographed it for several years before the event.”
Though he had prepared himself for what he was going to see, the devastation along the New Jersey coast was startling for Ljungkvist. “It was a very sad state of affairs to go down and see this place which, not only have I photographed, but I vacation down there. I love this place. But once you get over the shock, you get into photography mode and focus on what you are doing.”
Because the National Guard had secured the area, it was some time before Ljungkvist was able to get access. When he did, the eeriness was palpable. Even though it had been several months since the hurricane, there were still smoke alarms going off in many of the homes. Although he admits that, in retrospect, “it was not the smartest thing to do,” Ljungkvist often entered partially destroyed homes to get a photograph. Once the demolition crews began working, one of their first acts was to knock out all the windows in compromised buildings. This not only meant Ljungkvist could shoot interiors without risking life and limb, it also meant that he could get more of the tiny rooms in the frame by standing outside and photographing through the empty windows.
The Ocean Beach that Ljungkvist summons through his lens is a lonely place, colorful and brimming with personality, but devoid of actual human beings. As he saw it, the situation was already sad enough—he had little interest in photographing people in front of their ruined homes. “I’ve always been more interested in places than people,” he explains. “People come and go. I have a very strong feeling for the place. It’s not like I wanted to be neutral, but somehow the human presence is so big that it takes over.”
The absence of people is subtly subverted by Ljungkvist’s strategic use of “personal items”: A tennis racquet propped in the corner of a room, adjacent to a boyish set of bunk beds. A child’s globe on a nightstand, ocean blue against key-lime walls and harlequin-green curtains. In an image from after the storm, a miniature lighthouse sits on the mantle above a fireplace, but the living-room floor is sandy beach and an adjacent wall has been peeled away, revealing the blue skies. “I started experimenting with adding personal objects to select cottages that said something about me,” he says. “They are fragmented conceptual self portraits exploring the project’s subtexts of time, identity and memory.” The props were purchased at flea markets and initially meant for another project, but found a home in the Ocean Beach narrative.
It was only after the hurricane that Ljungkvist decided the book would focus on two things: the ocean and the beach. In his mind, those two elements work in concert with the sky to lend a surreal texture to the images, softening the sight of homes torn asunder, mazes of splintered wood and scattered belongings. Ocean and beach: The very elements responsible for this destruction are the same ones Ljungkvist uses to smooth the jagged edges of their aftermath, and coax beauty out of the flotsam and jetsam.