The Wildwoods

A new photography exhibit chronicles classic Americana down at the shore

Courtesy of Catherine Hennessy

The neon lights of the old motels are unmistakable in Wildwood. It’s one of the images that first inspired Catherine Hennessy to start taking photographs of the popular Jersey Shore vacation town.

In a new exhibit (opening May 6) the Philly shutterfly showcases a collection of photos from “The Wildwoods.” And while the images feature much of what you might expect – retro motels, signage and a nod to mid-century Americana – the works also dig deeper into Hennessy’s own childhood memories and the people from the town who give Wildwood its character long after summer shutters its doors for the season.

Hennessy spoke with G Philly about the new exhibition and her experiences living in Philly, Wildwood and New Orleans – and why she can never pass up a good Elvis impersonator.

How did Wildwood end up on your artistic radar?

This is a very personal project for me – I have a strong connection to Wildwood. My family has owned a house in North Wildwood since 1963, the year I was born. My grandparents, parents and my mother’s sister and her husband bought the house together for $9,000. This was at a time when working-class families could afford to buy a second home at the beach. I spent many summer months there as a kid.

What was family life like for you then?

My father was a cop in Philly and my mother was a waitress in the basement dairy at Wanamakers. For several summers she got waitressing jobs in Wildwood. She worked for a few summers at the famous Club Avalon for Cozy Morley, who was a friend of my parents.

What happened to the house?

I own the house now with a brother.

What is it about this beach town specifically that you wanted to revisit through art?

I just have always been fascinated by Wildwood. I feel the same excitement about it now as I did as a kid. I go for walks with my camera and there is never a shortage of subject matter. So many people have said insulting things to me about Wildwood – one guy even offered an apology when I told him that I had a house there – but I just tell them that they don’t know what they’re missing.

For someone who’s never been, how would you describe Wildwood?

I find it is a very colorful place. I meet so many interesting people there – Elvis impersonators, Christian missionaries, professional wrestlers on the beach, bikers and the teenagers on the boardwalk. My project is a photo essay about the town. The edit was pretty tough. I have hundreds of photos and had to pick 35 for the show. I am hoping someday to have it published as a book.

Wildwood has certainly changed since you spent summers there as a kid. Do you feel like you’re somehow documenting the past as it evolves into something more contemporary?

I was very upset about the changes that occurred during the real estate boom. I read that over 100 of the Doo Wop Motels were torn down. The motel pictured on my invitation was, unfortunately, one of them. It was called the Memory Motel. I remember my parents complaining about the changes that started happening in the 70s when the center of Wildwood started to become run down after its heyday in the 50s and 60s. Despite all of the changes, I believe the same spirit of the town is still alive.

What are some of the subjects in your show?

I have photographed many of the motels. However, for this show, I chose mostly portraits of strangers that I meet on the boardwalk and the beach – and a selection of shots that I guess I can describe as “street photography.”

How long can we see the exhibition?

I am going to keep the show up until the fall. After the opening, viewing would have to be by appointment.

Where else can we see your work?

After that I will probably be having a different show every three months. I lived in New Orleans for five years in the 90s. I worked as a waitress in a jazz club, did a lot of partying and took a lot of pictures of the gay scene there. All of my work is shot with film cameras, medium format and 35 mm.

“The Wildwoods” by Catherine Hennessy, May 6, 6-9 p.m., 2424 Studio, 2424 E. York St., No. 309., 215-868-3090.