Sea his shots: Exhibit shows 20 years of the Mermaid Parade

Sea his shots: Exhibit shows 20 years of the Mermaid Parade
Luke Ratray

He has focused on the parade.

A photo exhibit opening in Boerum Hill on June 24 will showcase two decades of costumed beauties from the annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. The Carroll Gardens photographer behind “Coney Island Mermaids, 1996–2016,” says that his work — on display for the first time — displays the beauty of everyday people, and also captures the changing nature of the People’s Playground.

“The pictures are about the people, but in the background you can see Coney Island changing,” said Luke Ratray. “I really noticed that while editing — you can see buildings that don’t exist anymore.

The new stores that crop up behind the saucy sirens in Ratray’s photos are a sign of soul-draining gentrification, he said.

“Now we’re looking at Applebee’s, and It’s Sugar, and these sites don’t hold any connection to the community at all,” he said. “It’s not that the dirt was better — it was better with the hand-painted signs, the pride they took in putting together their storefronts. That human touch is being cleaned away.”

Ratray, who started shooting pictures in the late ’70s, discovered the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in 1995, and was immediately enamored. He returned with his camera the next year, and every year since then, snapping black-and-white photos of the fascinating people at the parade.

“It made an impression on me. It was beautiful, and it was scary,” said Ratray.

He still shoots on film, preferring the connection that he can make with his subjects without the pressure to check a digital display immediately after each shot.

“There’s a better human interaction with film, than with digital — you can concentrate on your subject more,” said Ratray.

Visitors to this year’s Mermaid Parade may spot Ratray shooting on Surf Avenue, getting a few last shots to complete his exhibit. The artist says that he is drawn most to creative costumes and designs, and hopes that his show will spark a creative bulb in its viewers and inspire them to visit Coney Island.

“I hope it will inspire more creativity. People can see what was done in the past, and that can give them ideas for their own pursuits,” said Ratray. “I want to bring attention to small businesses and the organization of Coney Island USA — they’re really the ones preserving the heritage.”

“Coney Island Mermaids, 1996–2016” at Urban Folk Art Gallery [101 Smith St. between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street in Boerum Hill, (718) 643–1610, www.urbanfolkart.com]. Opening reception June 24 at 7 pm. Exhibit open daily through July 24, noon–8:30 pm. Free.

34th Annual Mermaid Parade (Surf Avenue from W. 21st Street to W. 10th Street, www.coneyisland.com). June 18 at 1 pm. Free.

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