This Week in Photography: The King of Atlantic City

 

I used to have a step-grandpa.

But he’s dead now.

I’m not sure when he died, or how, because my grandmother divorced him when they were in their 80’s.

(And she passed away in 2006.)

Grandpa Sam was a 20th Century character through and through; a miniature powerhouse of a man, completely crazy, but charming.

He was a narcissist and a gambler who loved chunky gold things, and tacky objects that implied they cost a lot of money.

His favorite place in the world was any cruise ship, or whichever casino in Atlantic City gave him the best comp deal at a given time.

Grandpa Sam became my step-grandpa when I was 10 years old, give or take, because my real Grandpa, Sy, had died of cancer when I was three. (Just old enough to have a token memory or two.)

Given my youth, I have no idea how Grandma Flo met Grandpa Sam, but it probably had something to do with cruise ships. And as a self-respecting Jersey Boy, I should mention here that he was the most Long Island guy I ever met. (Tri-State area folks will get the barb.)

I remember at my Bar Mitzvah, (which was held on the Asbury Park boardwalk, 30 years before it properly gentrified,) he got so drunk that he fell asleep on one of the tables, and I found him there at 1am when I was cruising the then-empty hotel with a friend.

Or what about the time he invited me on a walk around the neighborhood, which made me light up with excitement, but was only a ruse to chastise the 15-year-old-me for being a bad grandson.

Talk about a blindside hit!

But there’s no way to understand Grandpa Sam, who was about 5’3″ and wider than he was tall, without understanding Atlantic City.

That was where he felt most at home.

Given that he was no proper whale, he’d never have gotten the VIP treatment in Vegas, and you couldn’t get there by cruise-ship anyway.

But in A.C., as everyone calls it, they treated him like a King.

Free dinners, free hotel rooms, and even better, they’d hook up his family if he ever brought them along.

To be perfectly honest, I forgot about Grandpa Sam for about 10 years, and he only flashed into my memory last month, when my son was asking about his family history, and Grandpa Sam popped back in mind.

I can see his gaudy shirts now, opened three buttons down to show off his gold necklaces and fuzzy chest hair.

How did he die?

Was he alone?

I remember he was estranged from much of his family, because he was nuts, and Grandma divorced him for being abusive. It was considered brave, her willingness to be alone at that age, but then she got sick and died within a year or two, so there was no late-life Renaissance to be found.

They used to tell us Grandpa Sam had been a POW of the Nazis, having been captured in WWII, and that was the reason he was such a prick.

It might have had something to do with it, but I think his type, all macho bravado, bad taste, and shady business dealings was archetypical, as was the pull to a worn-down, once important, seedy place like Atlantic City.

The casinos came rather late, compared to its run as a fancy vacation destination in the early 20th Century, and they never brought the wealth and glory that was promised.

Rather, the entire corrupt system was just a sham for money laundering, luring tour busses full of glassy-eyed day trippers to windowless rooms where they pissed their retirement funds away.

And who was King of Atlantic City in the 80’s and 90’s?

Who plastered his name on the casinos, all of which went bankrupt or out of business eventually?

Who used the place as a platform for publicity, and for siphoning poor people’s cash into his own coffers?

Do you have to ask?

Donald J. Trump.

(Still known as the guy who stiffed everyone, leaving unpaid bills in his wake as he scrambled out of town.)

One day, I’ll get tired of writing about him, but that day is not today, as I went to my book stack this morning, and grabbed what may be the last book left over from the spring of #2019.

What did I find?

“Atlantic City,” by Brian Rose, published by Circa Press in London, and I’m not sure if he and I even corresponded at all.

It may be that the book showed up unannounced, landed in the pile, and was finally LIBERATED today, when it has even more resonance than it might have last year.

It’s perfect for now, what with public beaches finally opening around the country, cramped spaces like casinos being abandoned, and a potential new Depression popping up, promising to hollow out many a small city like A.C.

I’m going to cut to the chase, though, and tell you that I found the book to be flawed in its construction and vision, but the photographs and excellent opening essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger make it worth showing anyway.

(And it allows for a teachable moment.)

I always talk about the relationship between image and text in a photobook, and how it’s hard to get right.

How much information do you provide, and when and where to place it?

We need to ask those questions when we make or judge a book, and this one gets it wrong, after the opening essay.

There is a text blurb opposite each photograph, and the graphic design sensibility is off. The words float in odd places, and I did not like the pressure to pull my eyes away from the pictures to read every time.

It messed with the flow and detracted from the images, which were strong enough to communicate the book’s thesis.

Added to that, many of the text pages also contained Trump tweets, which were also repeated at times, thereby bashing us over the head with intent.

On the flip side, any photo book that has compelling photos that tell the story by themselves should be commended.

So it’s a muddle.

Trump is everywhere, though he sued to have his name taken off buildings he abandoned years ago, and the pictures also do justice to the feeling of empty facade that speaks to both A.C. and Trump so well.

At one point, we read a Shakespeare quote from Julius Caesar, and then the next photo shows a tacky billboard of the Bard, but that was the only example where the text created an unexpected frisson with the pictures.

I think, if rebuilt, this book would be better chunking up the words into a few sections, thereby letting the viewer get the pleasure of flipping through photos that don’t need words.

Sadly, Atlantic City is one of those places that people always think will “come back,” yet it never does.

Then again, that’s what they said about Asbury Park.

My Bar Mitzvah was held in a hotel that opened in the 80’s, confident they’d lead the wave of gentrification.

A wave, like the fickle Atlantic Ocean it abuts, that didn’t arrive for another generation.

So you can keep waiting, or give up.

Your choice.

Bottom Line: A flawed but intriguing look at a zombie city on the Jersey Shore

To purchase “Atlantic City” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. Although I agree that overall design and aesthetics are crucial and can make or break, well, just about anything- I didn’t find the overall layout and design of this particular book quite as bad or even as distracting as you make it out to be. The meat and potatoes are as solid as can be- that’s what will endure and be well worth remembering…

    • Jonathan Blaustein

      Are you judging from my jpegs or the book itself? And if you are judging from the book, of course you and I are allowed to disagree occasionally. But it bugged me while I was looking at the book. So that’s what I wrote…

  2. Don’t own it, have seen it. Just a question of personal taste is all; the printed tweets well serve to remind one of what and who we’re actually dealing with- the retweets, agreed, unnecessary.
    Just didn’t find it that big a deal, cause in the end- “…any photo book that has compelling photos that tell the story by themselves should be commended.”

    And this is one compelling and important story.

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