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Documenting the ‘peculiar paradise’ that was Florida

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Reflecting on his photography career, Nathan Benn says his best body of work was done in Florida circa 1981.

He was in his early thirties, at the peak of his skills as a photographer for National Geographic, he says, and had time and resources at his disposal while working for the iconic publication.

"Jamaican Seasonal Agriculture Laborers, Miami Airport" taken in 1981 by Nathan Benn. (Courtesy of Photo-Eye)

“Jamaican Seasonal Agriculture Laborers, Miami Airport” taken in 1981 by Nathan Benn. (Courtesy of Photo-Eye)

Not to mention, his home state was such a “fertile place” to be at that time, with so many different stories to tell.

“If I had to take a single project as my legacy, this is my legacy project,” Benn said during a recent interview at his Santa Fe home studio. “This is my defining project.”

Benn’s book showcasing more than 100 never-before-published images from Florida, “A Peculiar Paradise,” was released in November. About 15 selected images will be exhibited at photo-eye’s Bookstore + Project Space starting Friday with an opening reception and book-signing.

Benn, whose family has had a home in Santa Fe since the 1990s, has been living here mostly full-time for the past 3½ years. He also has a home in Brooklyn.

After working for National Geographic from 1972 to 1991, he founded an online stock image database that was sold to Kodak and later Getty. He also was the director of famous photographer cooperative Magnum Photos from 2000-03.

In the years since, he’s been going through dozens of cartons of film as a way to organize that “legacy” of his photography career.

He had never looked at most of the images during the era they represent. The pictures were leftovers returned to him after National Geographic’s photo editors went through his film post-assignment and put together a “work box” of usable photos for particular stories. The magazine typically kept 10-20 percent of what he’d shot.

Nathan Benn is shown when he worked for the Palm Beach Post Times. (Courtesy of Nathan Benn)

Nathan Benn is shown when he worked for the Palm Beach Post Times. (Courtesy of Nathan Benn)

Though there are some pictures from 1973 – when he was assigned to photograph the burgeoning Miami community of Little Havana – and as late as 1983, a majority of the photos Benn took in Florida for National Geographic are from 1981. All of the photos in his photo-eye show will be from that year, when the magazine sent him down for one of its regular state profile stories. He went there for one to two months at a time on about four occasions.

“The story of high-stepping Idaho, Vermont, land of dreamers and doers, it was that kind of caricature-ish, National Geographic pieces,” said Benn.

“And 1981 started with Florida being often in the news for bad reasons.”

He noted rising crime rates and drug wars in South Florida connected to the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Though he said the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cubans to Florida at that time brought mainly good people and reunited families, it was also a way for Fidel Castro to empty jails and mental institutions. At the time, he said, the U.S. did not have the resources to properly integrate the new influx of people.

He also noted a historic drought that was going on at the time, and Haitian refugees escaping their home country and arriving by boat, which he documented. There was also the rich tourism aspect of the state – he photographed spring break parties, the Kennedy Space Center, wax museums, and the then-newly-built Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth with the sod and trees freshly installed.

In the book, he points out, he also has images of Mar-a-Lago resort before it was purchased by now-President Donald Trump.

“There are environmental stories and human stories, and regionally this tremendous diversity,” he said of the Sunshine State. “And Florida is distinguished as being the most peculiar state consistently. You have whole bodies of literature – Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry – that’s all about Florida. You have books like Dave Barry’s ‘Best. State. Ever,’ you had Carl Hiaasen’s series, then you had the movies and TV that glamorized the drug trade and all of that, like ‘Scarface’ and ‘Miami Vice.’ ”

Benn is a native of Florida, born in Miami in 1950, but he described the state story assignment from National Geographic as one that “had this ambiguity,” a mix of familiarity and the exotic. He didn’t know much about the rest of the state beyond South Florida, and his hometown had changed since his upbringing.

Benn lived in Miami through college as he worked for local newspapers like the Miami News and the Palm Beach Post, before he was accepted as a summer intern for National Geographic. His father, who’d been sent to South Florida as part of the Army Air Corps in the 1940s, owned a liquor store in downtown Miami for about 10 years. That store wasn’t far from where the HistoryMiami Museum now stands, with photos by Benn on display. He’s donated his Florida archives and his family scrapbooks to the museum.

When Benn was a young child, Miami was a primarily Anglo, English-speaking city. The transition into a huge and robust Hispanic cultural center didn’t start until 1959 with the Cuban Revolution. Immigrants from South American countries later followed suit.

“The Miami I grew up in was pretty narrow and uninteresting,” he said. “And now, Miami, I love it. It’s much more interesting and if I were a young man today, I’d consider living in Miami because there’s a lot of energy.”

A ‘fly on the wall’

Back in 1981, he shot about 750 rolls of film – or about 25,000 photos – of which 2,000 or fewer were selected by his editors. Many of Benn’s subjects were what he and his colleagues called “walkies,” meaning he would venture around parts of the state without a plan, looking for whomever or whatever would make for an interesting story.

“First of all, I describe myself more as a people photographer rather than a landscape photographer,” he explained. “National Geographic, you think of a lot of great landscape and a lot of animals, and that’s not what I do.

“I did as much geography as necessary to get my story published, but I was always focused on people and that’s the orientation I took with every project. What I like most is just being the so-called fly on the wall as a documentary photographer, and not arranging things and just trying to find situations that had potential to make a good photograph and try to make a photograph out of it.”

Going through the images featured in the photo-eye show, he pointed to a photo of Francis Crowe Stahl, a retired milliner from Chicago whom he met on the street in Key West. He arranged to photograph her the following day at her friend’s garden. He remembers her well and described her as incredibly elegant. And she’d made the hat she wears in the photos, he recalled.

Another “walkie” he pointed to was of Mario Sanchez. Benn photographed the Cuban-American man from Key West with one of his wood-relief “memory paintings,” painted from memory rather than at the actual scene. Benn didn’t think much of it at the time, and didn’t have any record of the man’s name, but when showing the photos to the HistoryMiami Museum a few years ago he was told that the late folk-art painter had become famous and that his paintings sell for thousands.

Other photos resulted from collaborating with local newspapers and asking staffers where he should explore. This was the case with an image he took of two sisters from Two Egg, Fla., who were 108 and 110 years old.

In some cases, he went to areas he knew from his newspaper days. That’s how he found a Haitian refugee in a shack-like home in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. Essentially, all the viewer sees of the subject is the top of the face and eyes peering out the window.

“A woman sitting on the porch said ‘Are you police? Are you immigration?’ and stuff,” Benn remembered. “And this person was clearly in hiding, and I did not find the name of this person and talk to them.”

Something he was familiar with from working for the Miami News in the 1960s, and one of his favorite places to photograph, was the Fifth Street Gym in Miami. Benn dedicates an entire section of the “Peculiar Paradise” book to this hallowed piece of boxing history.

Owned by Chris Dundee, whose brother Angelo trained Muhammad Ali, it was full of Runyonesque characters, Benn said. His photo of one of the trainers, Sully Emmett – whose name Benn discovered only in recent years after someone put him in touch with the late gym owner’s daughter – will be at photo-eye.

“All of these guys were Jewish or Italian or Irish guys who had grown up in tough streets in the Bronx or Philadelphia, and had grown up with their fists and spent their lives boxing professionally and then as trainers in their later life,” said Benn. “There’s this beautiful ballet and camaraderie between these old trainers and these young athletes, and their communication was just so beautiful.”

When asked about his favorite photo of the collection, Benn pointed to one he took of two Jamaican men posing at the Miami airport.

The guys had just spent the entire season cutting sugar cane in Florida fields. Before boarding a chartered plane to go home, they had gone shopping and bought new suits and hats with their hard-earned money. To Benn, it’s the most “elegant” image.

“They were very proud and they should be,” he said. “They were very, very handsome dudes in fresh fancy clothing.”

Though the images Benn and photo-eye selected for the Santa Fe show were ones that he felt were the most appealing from a fine art perspective, his goal for publishing the book and giving his pictures to the Miami museum was to ensure the images last as something of a historical account.

“I have a very conscientious eye about art history,” he said. “My desire is that in 200 years, if someone says, ‘What did the late 20th century look like?’ that some of my pictures are still around.”

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