With the summer heat edging ever closer, the Museum of the City of New York is putting on an exhibition of 70 — count them — previously unseen images of sunny 1960s Coney Island by renowned New York photographer Aaron Rose.
Busy, hazy and a whole lot of fun, the photographs — taken between 1961 and 1963 — show us a side of New York life we don’t often see: a beach full of sun-lovers soaking up rays. Here are men in swimming briefs flexing their chest muscles, women in beautifully decorated bikinis lounging under parasols. Couples, too, cuddling on the sand.
And much like the city so many of these people surely come from, the beach is crowded as hell. In some images, sun-worshipers appear to bump up against one another, as if they are part of some seaside fender-bender.
“[Coney Island] was filled with people who work in all kinds of professions, who would never normally be out like that,” as Rose tells TIME. “The beach makes them have something in common — and that’s the thing I like most about it.”
Indeed, these images get to the very core of what Coney Island represents, even today, to many Americans. Originally a small seaside town — the “island” is actually a peninsula — Coney was once renowned as the so-called “playground of the world”: the home of the wooden Cyclone roller coaster, and the historical amusement mecca Steeplechase Park, among many other attractions. This was a place where generations of New Yorkers came to catch the summer’s best days, a resort in which to staycation before the staycation existed.
Rose’s photos even look like summer. A native New Yorker — often mentioned in the same breath as Wegee and Bruce Davidson — he was famously one of the earliest adopters of both C-print paper and chromogenic processing (a type of paper and a type of film processing closely associated with mainstream 20th century color photography). He also used a Leica, and tried not to allow subjects to see him taking photographs. These techniques allowed his candid images to boast clean whites and rosy tints that perfectly capture a specific time: the early 1960s. And a specific place: humid, languid New York.
What makes his work most interesting, though, is not what it shows, but what it does not show: the pomp and ceremony of Coney’s amusement arcades, the hubbub of its piers. What we see, instead, is an up-close look at regular people enjoying themselves at the beach. This is a slice of everyday 1960s life at its most frank, and its most beautiful.
In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs by Aaron Rose, 1961-1963 is on view at Museum of the City of New York, May 9 – Aug. 3, 2014
Richard Conway is Reporter/Producer for TIME LightBox. Follow him on twitter @