Five years ago this week, Monmouth County was enjoying a relatively pleasant fall. Families were buying Halloween costumes, making plans for Thanksgiving and gearing up to vote in a presidential election. Many were marveling, as they often do, at how quickly the seasons can change here in New Jersey. Then reports began to emerge of an unprecedented storm gathering strength in the Caribbean.
On Oct. 29, life in the Garden State changed forever. Overnight, thousands of families were forced out of their homes as historic flooding and gale force winds ripped through communities, ravaged boardwalks and shuttered local businesses. The effects of Hurricane Sandy – the second costliest hurricane in American history – would last for years, leaving many storm victims displaced even on the cusp of the storm’s five-year anniversary.
By now there is little that hasn’t been said about the storm, about the wounds that have healed and the scars that remain. But for Kevin R. Burkitt, a Jersey Shore photographer who spent years documenting Sandy’s aftermath in Monmouth and Ocean counties, a picture can still tell a thousand words.
“Growing up where I did, I never appreciated the quality and the character of the structures where we lived. Within 48 hours, it was gone,” said Burkitt, a Manasquan native and a learning space specialist in Brookdale’s Teaching and Learning Center. “It can all change so quickly, and for many people, it will never be the same again.”
On Oct. 20, Burkitt joined a capacity crowd of local residents and Brookdale community members in the Center for Visual Arts (CVA) Gallery to unveil his first ever solo exhibit, titled “91 Days; Countless Nights.”
The show features more than 60 long-exposure photographs taken in communities from Sandy Hook to Seaside Heights in the days, months and years following the storm. Working exclusively between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., Burkitt fought through biting cold, pain and even an occasional run-in with law enforcement in an attempt to capture the radical transformation of his home state in Sandy’s wake.
“What you won’t see are those ‘iconic’ images. I didn’t photograph the Seaside ferris wheel or the ‘ground zero’ house in Union Beach or any of the other images you saw all over the media after the storm,” said Burkitt, who currently lives in Shark River Hills.
“Most of the time I would get out of work and just drive around. I would look at things and ask myself, ‘Is that going to be there tomorrow?’ If I didn’t think it was, I would go there that night and shoot it.”
During the reception Burkitt gave an overview of his artistic process, which included waiting hours for ideal light and atmospheric conditions, listening to the progressive rock band Tool and donning all-black outfits to avoid being seen by local residents.
The goal, he said, was to present a “completely honest” view of a post-Sandy world. His exhibited photos, some of the more than 200 images he shot between November 2012 and April 2015, offer glimpses of not only gutted houses and rebuilding shore communities but the valuables, home furnishings and personal effects left behind in the storm.
He also explained the origin of the exhibit’s name, which he said was inspired by a News 12 broadcast airing 91 days after Sandy made landfall.
“The deeper meaning comes from the homeowners and the people who lived in these places,” he said. “The nights that they had, the nights where they lost sleep over this storm, must have been countless for them. To me, 91 days is the structure, and countless nights is the time lost worrying about recovery.”
In addition to the reception, Burkitt also hosted a “technical talk” with Brookdale art and photography students in the CVA Gallery on Oct. 24. The exhibit and events are part of this year’s Visiting Artist Series at Brookdale, which is funded in part by the Monmouth County Arts Council. The exhibit will be on display through Nov. 12.
“It’s very powerful,” said Nancy Williams, a West Long Branch resident and local teacher who attended the reception on Oct. 20. “These were people’s homes, people’s lives, and I heard from someone here tonight that at least one of these houses still looks like that. I have students who are still not back in their houses… Knowing that it happened and that you lived through it is one thing. But when you see it on these prints, the way Kevin photographed it, it’s not just a picture. It all tells a story.”
General CVA Gallery operating hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. If the door is locked, please see Phyllis Nicholson in the Humanities Institute Office. Prints are also available for purchase, with proceeds going to support the Brookdale Visiting Artist Program. For more information and upcoming events, visit the CVA Gallery webpage.
Check out more photos from the 91 Days; Countless Nights reception here.