Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City’s past and present.
Staten Island’s Arthur Kill boat graveyard was born in the wake of World War II, when Witte Marine Equipment Company opened its arms to abandoned ships with the goal of dismantling them and selling their broken-down bodies for scrap. The boats accumulated faster than the company could dismantle them, and so they sit in the muck and the mire, a playground of nautical history.
“The Boatyard is a collection of a hundred different stories all being told at the same time,” reads a forward to photographer Shaun O’Boyle’s photos of the yard in the 1980s. The boats, O’Boyle goes on, are like retired men, gathered together in a watery retirement home despite their will, their life stories plastered on what’s left of their sagging hulls.
A former resident of Staten Island, O’Boyle first learned about the yard through a friend who’d grown up in the borough. He began documenting the yard in 1987, and after a gap of more than decade, he picked up the project again in 2000. The working crews and captains were long gone by the time O’Boyle documented the vessels’ remains, but the area still fascinated him, since “the boats tend to get more interesting as they age.”
He finished the series in 2006, and has since returned to the abandoned area, but it’s not the same. “I have been back several times, and many of the boats are now gone, some through salvage, others have been damaged by the waves and storms,” O’Boyle wrote in an email to Curbed. O’Boyle’s portfolio includes photos of many abandoned spaces, but the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard, he says, is one of his favorites.
While exploring the boats, O’Boyle came upon many relics, including personal letters. A friend of a friend with a deep knowledge of the boatyard helped him caption his photos, which are impressively precise—almost personal, in fact.
The Boatyard is still there today—this author visited just a few months ago—but the boats are so diminished that, at high tide, only the tops of the bigger ships peer out above the water’s surface. Back in the ’80s, boats were tightly packed enough to serve as bridges out into the water and from ship to ship; now, a kayak or vessel of one’s own is necessary to navigate the graveyard.