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Faded Colors, Empty Rooms on the Shore

The first time Douglas Ljungkvist saw Ocean Beach, N.J., it reminded him of a labor camp. It was 1993 and Mr. Ljungkvist … rented a cottage in the Jersey Shore hamlet.”I did not want to spend my vacation there,” said Mr. Ljungkvist, a Swedish-born photographer. “It’s just rows and rows and rows of these tiny cottages in a line. The streets are made of sand, and it’s very sparse. There are telephone poles and wires and a Dairy Queen, so what?

But Mr. Ljungkvist grew so fond of Ocean Beach that he returned the following summer, and the summer after that … for the next six summers. He rented a different cottage each year.

Mr. Ljungkvist now has a long list of things he treasures about Ocean Beach. “I love the foggy days when I can hear the ocean but can’t actually see it,” he said. “I love the dampness. You can almost lick the salt out of the air. When you go to bed at night, there’s a dampness in the sheets. When you walk around at night, you smell barbecue everywhere. You can always hear a murmur of traffic. It’s never dead quiet. It feels safe. It feels comfortable.

For the next decade work kept Mr. Ljungkvist away from Ocean Beach,. When he returned during the winter of 2009 he began wandering the resort town’s sandy streets, photographing cottage exteriors. Because it was the off-season, stores were shuttered, beaches were empty and the thin barrier island was his to roam. After a year of shooting, he visited Ocean Beach Sales and Rentals, the agency in charge of renting hundreds of cottages in town. There he was granted access to any cottage he wished to shoot.

“The first thing I looked for was color,” said Mr. Ljungkvist, 47. “A very big part of all my work is color.”

“They (the cottages) pretty much all look the same – same size, same materials – but the color is what gives them an individual identity.” Mr. Ljungkvist prefers his colors pale, like the faded, almost imperceptible blue he found on an American flag hanging from one cottage ( below). “Color for me … needs time, it needs air, it needs salt and wind; it needs the elements to make it look beautiful.”

He also looked for cottages that had retained their original 70s-style décor. While he had been away, many owners had renovated their homes and installed all manner of modern conveniences to keep pace with the demands of a competitive rental market. “The wood paneling was gone, replaced with white Sheetrock walls, flat-screen TVs, nice leather couches, tile floors, Wi-Fi networks,” Mr. Ljungkvist said.

To him the refurbished homes felt less like vacation destinations and more like apartments in the city. “They had lost a little bit of a sense of place,” he said.

During the winter, most of the cottages were empty of personal effects or artwork, which suited Mr. Ljungkvist. He liked having so few clues about the people who owned them.

“I prefer photographs with more questions than answers,” he said.

After two and a half years, Mr. Ljungkvist had photographed more than 60 cottages. He felt the project was done and was ready to send it to his book publisher. Then Hurricane Sandy hit. The storm ravaged resort towns up and down the Jersey Shore and destroyed cottages in Ocean Beach that Mr. Ljungkvist had recently photographed.

“I was very upset,” he said. “It felt personal, like there was a friend hurting.” As soon as public access to the barrier island was restored, Mr. Ljungkvist drove to Ocean Beach. “It was horrifying,” he said, likening the cottages to ruined card houses. “It looked like someone had dropped a bomb on it.”

Slowly, Mr. Ljungkvist began taking pictures again, this time of homes without roofs or walls, with floors full of sand and doors open to the ocean breeze. He started getting phone calls from homeowners and renters looking for a record of their cottages before they were demolished.

“I was concerned that my work would make them more upset,” he said. “But it turned out it was helpful for them to be reminded of a better time.”

And now, he can’t stop. Before Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Ljungkvist considered himself a fine art photographer. But what he’s doing in Ocean Beach now feels more documentary. “I always felt that my work down there was a race against time,” he said. “Against modernization.

Now there’s an even greater time pressure, more like what I imagine a photojournalist has. In a few weeks they’re going to start knocking houses down.”

from The New York Times – Tuesday, January 15, 2013 By JESSE NEWMAN