In 1981, while on assignment for National Geographic, photographer Nathan Benn returned to his home state of Florida. It was then at a time of flux, with a wave of immigration, construction of sprawling tourist destinations like Disney’s Epcot theme Park, and a bloody drug war centered in Miami. Then there were those parts of the state that seemed stagnant, such as the Cape Coral Gardens development that emerged in the 1960s with thousands of rose bushes and formal gardens, which all withered when the attraction was a financial failure. In November of 1981, the cover of Time magazine was emblazoned “South Florida: Paradise Lost,” with a frowning sun glowering over a postcard-style script embedded with images related to drugs, crime, and the Haitian refugee crisis.
Cocaine cowboys were glamorized on television in Miami Vice and at the cinema in Scarface. The Miami-Dade morgue had more bodies than it could handle and leased a refrigerated truck to store surplus corpses. I had visions of channeling Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, the consummate press photographer who made countless photographs, both horrifying and beautiful, of crime and trauma in the streets of mid-century New York. From my perspective, with selfish aspirations to produce serious photojournalism, the situation was excellent.
A rather grisly human torso washed ashore on a Miami beach does make an unsettling appearance in the book, and was the image that riled his National Geographic editors (all of the shots in A Peculiar Paradise are published for the first time, so they weren’t selected for the magazine). However while most of the images do have some of that Weegee visual wit, they are concentrated on living people. Benn has surreal shots of alligators at the Gatorland roadside attraction, with one blurry creature slipping down a slide on the book’s cover; the animatronic dinosaurs awaiting installation at Epcot; and the gaudy architecture in a pre-Trump Mar-a-Lago. Yet the most engaging of his richly hued Kodachromes are the portraits.
He documents a small boat packed with Haitian refugees sailing into Biscayne Bay, as well as the Cuban immigrants living in Little Havana, like a woman tending to a saint shrine surrounded by red and white flowers in her yard, and a boy pulling a colossal, somewhat battered Santa Claus balloon in a sunny holiday parade on Calle Ocho. He also captures the broiling racism and xenophobia against immigrants, such as a demonstration where a woman holds a sign reading: “Be proud. Say it loud! English is the language of our country.”
Selections of the Florida photographs are on view through April 14 at the HistoryMiami Museum in Miami. The issues and tensions in the over 100 images, whether ecological or political, are often still present, making A Peculiar Paradise a timely return to this decades-old work. From the rockets looming at Cape Canaveral, to the wet t-shirt contests at spring break, Benn’s photographs portray in vivid color the dreams and debauchery of the Sunshine State.
A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs by Nathan Benn is out now from powerHouse Books. Photographs from the series are on view through April 14 at the HistoryMiami Museum (101 West Flagler Street, Miami, Florida).