OF COURSE THERE WAS AN ATLANTIC CITY BEFORE ITS BOARDWALK, but for a first time visitor that Boardwalk – and the adjacent Steel Pier – is the essential iconic view of the seaside resort city. The sun was going down when I checked in at my hotel, Resorts AC, so I had just enough time to throw my bags on the bed before rushing past the casino floor through the lobby and out to the Boardwalk for some shots.
Whatever else I was going to do in the next day or so, I knew I’d keep returning to the pier and the Boardwalk to try and catch as many variations of the view as I could with my cameras. The sun had already set so I headed straight for the The Wheel – the 227 foot tall ferris wheel on the Steel Pier, where I knew I could get some great views of the casinos at night even if there was no more light on the water.
I had a new toy in my bag for the trip – a 7.5mm fisheye lens, which seemed appropriate for a seaside casino resort town like Atlantic City. It ended up getting used for the first time after I’d gotten off The Wheel, at the entrance to the Steel Pier, right by the Hard Rock Casino, where coloured lights and neon lit up the retro moorish arches and provided just the sort of garish carnival effect I wanted for an amusement pier dating back to the end of the 19th century.
I made it out to the beach by the Steel Pier just after sunrise the next morning, at the beginning of a clear, sunny day that was more summer high season than autumn off-season. I left my tripod in my hotel room and shot the silhouette of the pier and the wheel with all of its lights out. As the sun rose I walked east along the beach under the pier, where the waves broke against the concrete pylons as the tide came in.
It was early and I was still sleepy and uncaffeinated but nothing wakes you up like a morning at the seashore. I shot and shot and realized that beaches are generally the most Instagramable places in the world.
It was a great day for a stroll on the Boardwalk, so I headed west from my hotel past the old shops and the recently-renovated Claridge to the big casinos like Caesar’s and Bally’s. This is where you get glimpses of the old Atlantic City on the facades above the food stands and souvenir shops – blazes of polychrome decoration that give you some idea what the Boardwalk looked like in its first heyday, from the late 19th century through Prohibition.
These flashes of exhuberant decoration are – along with the art deco and streamline moderne comfort stations and municipal buildings – the de facto style of Atlantic City, and it would be nice if, one day, a few of the big casinos could be renovated to evoke this period.
This is the Boardwalk of Nucky Thompson and Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series that recreated Atlantic City in its high-living prime. That, and Louis Malle’s eponymous 1980 movie with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, were the sources of most of what I knew about Atlantic City before I’d arrived there the night before.
Strolling along the Boardwalk looking for shots, I had to remind myself to look the other way. When I did I was reminded that Atlantic City is a beach town, with a long beautiful stretch of sand and surf that wouldn’t look out of place in Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons. The resemblance is even more pronounced further down the Boardwalk and out in Margate, where the beach is lined with big beautiful homes – summer “cottages” and seasonal rentals that empty out in the winter, like any other northeast beach town.
I made it back to my hotel and the Steel Pier again at sunset, to catch some more views of the Wheel and the lights. It was a nice sunset – good but not great – though the lights on the Wheel and their reflection on the wet sand ended up tying the shot together. The next day dawned completely different – a real autumn day at the beach, with a cool blue sunrise and low, heavy clouds.
This time my tripod made it to the beach, since the light was dim enough to shoot with longer exposures, capturing the waves in motion as they lapped up on the sand. I decided it was time to try a really long time exposure since the conditions were just right, so I parked myself by the remains of an old pier, locked off the camera and shot out to sea for thirty seconds. The results really weren’t that bad.
And with that my stay in Atlantic City was almost over, with just enough time to get a final shot up close and personal with the Boardwalk itself. There was a train ride back to Philadelphia and two planes before I’d be back in Toronto, but I’d had a great time discovering this famous seaside city and its iconic views for the first time, in person.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of these photos go here.