‘Wonder Worlds’ Gives Amusement Parks Surreal Life

In looking photographer Rebecca Dietz’ work assembled for “Wonder Worlds,” opening Thursday as an official Fotoseptiembre event, my mind wanders, unexpectedly, to The Sopranos. Dietz’ black-and-white photos of amusement parks, particularly those on the boardwalks that line the Mid-Atlantic, recall a particularly surreal fever dream of Tony Soprano at the end of season 2. In it, Soprano strides down a deserted boardwalk that’s dusted in snow and cloaked in howling wind despite it being June, and meets up with various members of his crew, passing weathered Asbury Park hallmarks before encountering some singing fish, which unveil an uncomfortable truth the viewer realizes Soprano must have known all along. You know the one. Like Dietz’ work, the episode (titled, not incidentally “Funhouse”) uses the boardwalk setting to simultaneously elicit subconscious recollections of youth and family and fun as well as more serious questions about mortality and the passage of time

“I grew up on the East Coast in the ’60s and ’70s, when a lot of these parks were at their final heyday,” said Dietz, who spent her childhood in Delaware, “so that’s embedded in my history, the sort of ludicrous grandeur of the amusement parks with the creatures and the rides and the characters all over the place.” After a stint as a fire-eater and torch thrower in San Francisco and graduating from the University of Delaware with a MFA, Dietz moved to San Antonio in 2006, where she teaches photography at San Antonio College. A trip back to home turf inspired Dietz to look more closely at the boardwalks of her youth. “When I went back in my 30s and the amusement parks were getting older and sort of showing their wear and tear, it became like this sort of personal connection that I had; we were both older now. I went back to sort of study them and find something of myself and my past.”

Dietz was at first perplexed that these seaside parks didn’t occur on every coast. “When I moved here I drove down to the coast a couple times and I was like ‘where’s the boardwalk?’” said Dietz by phone from her SAC office, “and I never went back.” So she traced a path along the Jersey Coast from Wildwoods to Brooklyn’s famous Coney Island, visiting the two behemoths and many smaller parks in between.

She used old medium format film cameras to capture looming Ferris wheels, spinning rides and peeling, painted “carnival creatures.” While Dietz maintains many of these parks are still popular, her shots on location seem almost forlorn. People are present, but Dietz has intentionally blurred them or framed the shots so as to focus on the mechanical elements rather than the park patrons. “I wasn’t primarily interested in the people themselves,” said Dietz. “The people that I was interested in were actually the statues or the creatures or the mermaid painted on the mural [that] has a bunch of inflatable aliens sitting next to her. Those became my people. I was interested in those as the residents that lived at the park.” She intentionally avoided busy times so as to try to capture her “people.” Dietz explained, “I’m trying to catch them at those little quiet moments when there aren’t a lot of people around and they’re sitting in their element. They seem to come alive a bit.”

By processing the film herself (yes, it has become so unusual to encounter a photographer still using film and a darkroom that we must comment on it), Dietz is able to imbue her gelatin silver prints with even more subtle whimsy. Steel railings seem to glow and light bulb letters pop against inky backgrounds, clouds billow and ramshackle rides stretch out of frame. That kind of ordinary magic will be further enhanced by a carnival night Southwest School will host on September 17 to celebrate the exhibit complete with a fire performance (not by Dietz, but S.T. Shimi), tarot and palm readers, an astrologer, live music and costumed characters (another of Dietz’ San Francisco-era professions). The exhibit itself maintains a more contemplative feel, though

“I still have this sort of childhood wonder inside me from when I first saw these amusement parks, and these characters were very, very alive to me. The tall pirates that stand over the gates that you have to go through as a kid to get to the ride … Or the mermaid that’s painted on a building that seems to be smiling at you,” Dietz said, “and they’re a little bit scary because they’re a little bit real.”

Wonder Worlds

Southwest School of Art, Ursuline Hall gallery
9am-5pm, Mon-Fri (opening reception 5-8pm Thu, Sept 5)
300 Augusta
(210) 224-1848
Through Nov 8

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