Down For the Day

Susannah Ray

For years Ray has photographed the intersection of New York City and waterways, how the urban and natural environments overlap, and how people in the city engage with those spaces. Focusing on areas outside of those more widely associated with the city, such as Manhattan, Ray’s work reflects an appreciation for broader communal experiences and shared spaces where socioeconomic divisions become erased, even if momentarily.

As a resident of the Rockaways, so much of Ray’s life involves the water, for transportation and as her day-to-day backdrop. The summertime beach, however, did not feature prominently in her work. Indeed, even after living there for over 10 years, she had only made the beach a subject in one piece prior to her latest series. “It just hadn’t struck me as a subject to photograph,” Ray says. “I realized the topic of the beach is layered with other significance, especially when the day trippers come in the summer.”

The seed for her interest in the beach had been planted in her constant engagement with the shared public space, but her inspiration for Down For the Day came from a more sudden realization. As she was walking along the boardwalk early one evening, Ray paid closer attention to the people coming off of the beach, who were saddled with chairs, bags, and umbrellas and covered in sand. “Everyone looked simultaneously disheveled, exhausted, and elated,” says Ray. “I had this moment, like an awakening, that there is an incredible thing happening in front of me and wanted to make photographs that would celebrate the beach and the people who come to enjoy it.”

The section of the beach Ray focused on is less than a mile long, yet it becomes one of the most crowded stretches as day trippers flock there in the summer. In her images, intertwined bodies pile onto blankets and towels with books, snacks, and personal items. Torsos become pillows for friends and lovers as candid moments unfold across the densely populated sands. Some photographs feature groups enjoying their days unaware of the camera. In others, the subjects pause and look at Ray, but the shots remain candid. In one, Ray seems to have stopped a woman walking after a day at the shore. On her wet hair sits a plastic tiara, and a sash that reads “it’s my fucking birthday” drapes across her towel-covered chest. Her expression appears both tired and fulfilled–a birthday well spent.