Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
I’ll confess up front: the “long, withdrawing roar” of the sudden silence that ended The Sopranos was still in my ears when I took up Caroline Seebohm’s Cottages and Mansions of the Jersey Shore (Rivergate/Rutgers University Press $39.95), which features Peter C. Cook’s brilliant photographs. At least I’m not the only one suffering withdrawal symptoms. People are still debating the implications of the Bloomfield Avenue black-out, not to mention the presence of the Man in the Members Only Jacket (already taking a place in television mythology next to the One-Armed Man from The Fugitive); and what about the fact that David Chase supposedly wanted to stretch that hiatus of black silence well beyond ten seconds? Anyone who doubts the clout of HBO’s masterpiece of World Class Jerseyana should take a look at a recent piece of political theatre from Hillary Clinton, in which she and Bill play out Carmela and Tony’s dinner-scene finale as a way of bonding with the Soprano-saturated national imagination while introducing a campaign song by Celine Dion.
I should also confess that as soon as I knew I was going to write about Cottages and Mansions of the Jersey Shore, I made sure to watch “Whitecaps,” the concluding episode of Season Four, wherein Tony lands a quality beachfront residence in Sea Bright that Carmela and the kids never get to enjoy. Soprano fans will fondly remember the ingenious way he forces the lawyer owner who lives next door to refund the six-figure cash deposit. No rough stuff. Just Dean Martin doing his Las Vegas lounge act at top volume, courtesy of a pair of giant loudspeakers on a yacht anchored in front of the victim’s house. While the homeowners Caroline Seebohm conversed with when putting together her book on the Shore are unlikely to have experienced any mob activity first hand, it’s safe to say that some of them must have had dealings with slick operators like the character who shafted the original buyer in order to collect Tony’s big advance and then tried to hold on to it until that all-night superamplified serenade from Dino.
The fact that a lavishly illustrated book about houses on the Jersey Shore can be discussed in the same breath with The Sopranos suggests how tightly interwoven the themes of the show are with those of the state. Readers who rolled their eyes two weeks ago when I declared that the series some critics have called the “best in television history” lent a certain dark charisma to our state have surely never seen the way the faces of people in other states and other countries come alive with interest when they hear you’re from New Jersey. It’s a good bet that this would not have been the case six or seven years ago.
The Shore has a murky Soprano underside of its own, as the first paragraph of Caroline Seebohm’s introduction makes clear when it refers to the stereotype of “urban blight, hypodermic needles, and gangsters” and, later, “all-night beach orgies and washed-up medical waste” (not to mention a few bodies or body parts floating down from Soprano country). But Seebohm sees the larger story of the Shore in terms that, again, could be describing the dynamic of The Sopranos when she finds “the essence of New Jersey in all its beauty, tragedy, toughness, and diversity” in the 127-mile-long stretch of coastline between Sandy Hook and Cape May.
Peter Cook’s photographs do a great deal more than illustrate Seebohm’s personably informative text. They have the depth and warmth and scope of substantial works of photographic art; the atmosphere and aura of the summer season are almost palpable. Turnpike transients who still think New Jersey is defined by the industrial sprawl between Exits 12 and 16 might find it hard to believe that the view pictured opposite the title page is within easy driving range of Tony Soprano’s domain. If the color of the water were a dreamier blue, you might think you were looking out on a stretch on the Italian Riviera or through a window in Taormina. In fact, the window you’re gazing through is in an Atlantic Highlands home overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and not far from Tony’s lost Sea Bright Shangri-La. Turn the page and you have another radiant portrait, this time showing a portion of Jersey marshland spilling onto a beach, the sun casting a path of light across it, illuminating every intricate detail. Before you even reach the introduction there are two brilliant celebrations of perspective: the view down a sun-gilded arcade formed by weathered posts under a long wharf and a more austere but no less painterly vista of a sandscape stark with shadow and light between facing rows of modest dwellings that have more in common with shacks than cottages. Again, though you can feel the summer heat, the scene has been captured so brilliantly that it glows beyond its moment; the perfect spears of shadow in front of each structure look as if they’d been painted by a student of De Chirico’s.
Then there’s the astonishing vista facing the first page of the introduction. The caption makes a valiant attempt (comparing it to “a Luminist painting”), but it’s like trying to put a label on magic. Once again the combination of depth and sweeping perspective transforms a cloudscape reflected in tidal water into something wonderful. You almost expect the lone sea gull to fly off with a fairy on its back.
Again, maybe it’s a hangover from The Sopranos, but the aesthetic of style and taste doesn’t appeal to me as much as the aesthetic of wear and tear. Photographically, it doesn’t get much better than the shot captioned “the classic forms of the cottages of Ocean Grove.” What makes the picture is the contrast of deep blue sky with stark white posts framing a simple but stunning structure that looks more like a storage shed than a cottage. It takes a true artist to see a worthy subject in a seemingly ordinary, even mundane building. Peter Cook knew that the unadorned simplicity of the structure would stand out and lend a seemingly inadvertent charm to the paneled facade’s subtle pastel shades that might have looked merely dull in a lesser photograph.
Taken in Asbury Park and Loveladies, my personal favorites on this Cook’s tour contain elements of a New Jersey Americana closer to the guilty pleasures glorified and made memorable by the The Sopranos, Bruce Springsteen, and the stories of Stephen Crane, who cut his teeth as a reporter with the Asbury Park Press. For instance, there’s the close-up of the iron sculpted Loveladies bird (Tony would love it), with the deep blue sky once again helping to clarify the image. The caption for the picture that opens the Asbury Park chapter could be the abstract for another book with its reference to “this poignant image of a deluxe hotel’s fall from grace” and its place in “Asbury Park’s tragic history.” Poignance is only one of the qualities that can be read into Cook’s portrait of the shaping performed by weather, erosion, and decay on a structure seen with an eye for its evocative charm, as if it were a portion of some storied Mediterranean villa.
I keep being drawn back to the idea of “charisma” according to Webster’s secondary definition: “a special magnetic charm or appeal.” Any number of reasonably talented photographers could take a picture of that Asbury Park facade with its eroded flying buttresses and not come close to the possibilities Cook has manifested. The same could be said of the picture on the cover, which makes you think the photographer must have painted or at least scrubbed and polished that resplendent red bicycle; more likely, he simply used sunlight and shadow to create the charm that makes an everyday object the most interesting thing in a picture ostensibly meant to show off the house behind it. If the red bicycle hadn’t been there, it seems likely that another image would have been chosen for the cover.
Caroline Seebohm’s most “written” chapter is the one on Asbury Park. Elsewhere, she blends history, personal with general, drawn from extensive research and first-hand conversations with various homeowners. Asbury Park? “Its history is as chequered as a NASCAR flag, and just as gritty.” Looking back to “the seeds of its decline,” she writes: “Billiards! Bowling! Smoking and dancing! The devil was at the doorstep.”
And Tony Soprano was waiting in the wings.
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