Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2004: Peter Granser „Coney Island“

Winner 2004: Peter Granser

A place in upheaval, a myth long forgotten: the 2004 LOBA winning series captures the once legendary and now greatly diminished amusement centre, in mix of banal cheerfulness and distressing nothingness.

Coney Island’s entertainment parade was once unique; but that was a long time ago. The photographer has captured the marvellously morbid charm of this ageing amusement park in all its exaggerated and absurd aspects.

Built in the 19th century, the Coney Island complex was intended as a future America, a technical wonderland right next to the Atlantic Ocean. In the amusement park, the masses discovered new leisure habits; but all the glamour is now gone. The formerly chic promenades and amusements have disappeared under a dirty veil of weeds and rust. “Once upon a time, in the first decades of the twentieth century, Coney Island was a democratic paradise where rich and poor alike doffed their clothes and immersed themselves in continuous pleasure of the flesh, the eyes, and the city-dweller’s lust for thrills,” as the US-American author Vicki Goldberg describes it in the introduction to Granser’s series. She continues: “A summertime heaven on earth, a middle- and working-class utopia a year round, a mechanical Promised Land, it was a safe and sociable public space.” The problems began in the 1960s, when much was demolished as part of an urban renewal programme and Coney Island changed radically. When Granser started his photographic investigations, the peninsula was at a crossroads, as it were, and he pointed his camera at a Coney Island in transition.

“To me this place sometimes seems funny, sometimes strange, sometimes tragic and sometimes melancholic – exactly like life.”

With his calm, contemplative gaze, Granser brings the extraordinary aspects of ostensibly prosaic reality to light. Remarkable explosions of colour, unexpected geometric configurations, strange events, which seem to hide around every corner, are characteristic features of his work –a mixture of enchanting smiles and emptiness, of dry humour and melancholy: this is what he calls the peninsula’s “wonderfully morbid charm”. Granser’s photographs not only show city-dwellers looking for diversion in an artificial environment: from his point of view, the study of the endearingly morbid charm of Coney Island is, at the same time, a portrait of the American way of life. The restful, carefully observed colour photos reflect the dreams of the little people and the utopias of the past. In the melancholic leisure at this El Dorado, however, they mutate into empty illusions.

In the course of five trips to New York between 2000 and 2005, the photographer captured Coney Island in over 2400 pictures. The Leica Oskar Barnack Award was a good start, and four years later he published his studies in a far more comprehensive, illustrated book.

(Text updated 2020)

Peter Granser

The Austrian was born in Hanover in 1971. He taught himself the basics of photography and worked for newspapers and magazines before he started a personal project in 2000. With his first project, “Sun City”, he established a documentary style and work that has developed successfully ever since. In addition to “Coney Island”, his most famous works include a series about Alzheimer’s, and his “Sun City” series. In addition to the 2004 LOBA, he received numerous prizes and awards, including the Arles Discovery Award in 2002 and the Helmut-Kraft-Foundation Talent Art Prize in 2011. In 2006 he was a stipendiary of the Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg. In 2016, his project, “Heaven in Clouds”, was nominated for the Israel Museum’s Shpilman International Prize for Excellence in Photography, and was selected for the Artist Book Grant from the Stiftung Kunstfonds in 2018. In 2019 Granser received the Kubus. Sparda Audience Award for his exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, which presented an overview of the last ten years of his work. To date, Granser has published ten books.

Inspired by stays in China and Japan, Granser founded the ITO project space in 2015, to experiment with artistic positions revolving around topics such as time, emptiness, nature and consciousness. He lives in Stuttgart.

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The Leica Oskar Barnack Award jury also granted two Honourable Mentions: Martin Kollar, member of Agence VU’, was distinguished for his “Nothing Special” photographic journey through various East European countries; Magnum photographer Alex Majoli was recognized for his “Hotel Marinum” project.