Just in time for Miami Art Basel Week, the HistoryMiami Museum is presenting A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs by Nathan Benn.
I visited the show on his opening day on November 8. The Museum, located at 101 West Flagler Street, sets apart from the chaotic Downtown Miami because of its location over a central plaza in an architectural ensemble, the Miami-Dade Cultural Center, which also includes the most important Public Library in the city.
It is always lovely to walk through this little-crowded square that rises a floor or two above street level, especially to see a show by Nathan Benn, a native of Miami, former photographer of National Geographic and former Director of Magnum Photos. Benn photographed the entire state of Florida in the 80s for the National Geographic and the exhibit built from this material.
Once inside we leave behind the festive atmosphere of the ground floor where a large audience enjoys the welcoming cocktail and go directly to the second floor in search for the exhibition. My first overall impression is that although the area of the exhibit is abundant the photographer would have needed much more space to hang everything he wanted to share. Consequently, we walk through a space where means and proportions converge.
I appreciate images as small as the original Ektachrome Slides, with annotations and stamps, or as big as a wall size printout.
In addition, monitors present slide shows with the hundreds of images that did not make the printed selection.
The photographs on paper, perfect copies from the Ektachromes, maintain the charm of the slides with their characteristic color, warm tone, and detail. These are almost 100 and come in different sizes and mounting support. It is at this point in my tour that the content begins to impose itself over the form and opens the door to the peculiar paradise of Nathan Benn, a world that seems coming out of Scarface, the Al Pacino movie. We see weapons, drugs, police officers with criminals in handcuffs, even a torso abandoned by drug traffickers on the street. Add to this the torrid atmosphere of a decadent gymnasium, Haitian castaways, Cuban refugees arriving by plane, and the Alpha 66 camp with its militiamen always training to topple Fidel Castro. The result is Miami in 1981, an anarchic place I did not experience at the time, but that my friends who lived in the area remember well.
Besides Miami, the retrospective includes images of other parts of Florida and other inhabitants. We now have to snoop inside Mar-A-Lago, still decorated for Mrs. Post in 1981, when a portrait of the millionaire, her furniture and memories were about to be replaced by the new owners. We see pictures of pilots, cosmonauts, farmers, tourists, and retirees. Also, a festive crocodile occupies a prominent place going down a slide, and it is in the cover of the book that accompanies the exhibition, the one Mr. Benn kindly dedicated to me.
Those of us who had to use Ektachrome before the advent of the digital can appreciate in all its breadth the consistency of the artist’s work. This film is very delicate, has little latitude, and the photographer needs expertise to obtain stable quality results. Nathan passes the test with honors. His metal suitcases traveling back to National Geographic contained hundreds of rolls exposed in the rush of the assignment that must be ready for yesterday. Photographers had to process the film to verify what images they included. In conversation with a group of followers the next day at the local Leica store Benn confesses that he prefers film over digital because if he does not know what is latent inside the camera when working it helps him to take more photographs.
The exhibit is an exploration of Florida through the eyes of an exceptional witness, a leading contemporary photographer from the area. Nathan Benn shares with us a testimony of great importance. The photographs are photojournalistic in essence, but they stand on their own due to their technical and compositional attributes. A Peculiar Paradise narrates in the first person because of the familiarity Nathan establishes with his subjects, people but also all kind of places across the State. An aerial photo of the Vizcaya Palace at sunset cannot compete with an excellent image of the Epcot Park in Orlando. The first one is a difficult technical challenge solved with professionalism, although the second adds to technique a oneiric atmosphere to an otherwise commonplace. The distinctive entrance of the Park acquires new meaning in a particular and intimate composition. Therefore, this image transcends photo journalism in abundance.
In conclusion, Nathan Benn shares with us a testimony of special significance since the artist is allowing an opportunity for the contemporary audience to immerse entirely in a world that does not exist anymore. The eighties are long gone. Therefore, you will not want to miss this show, given a chance to meet photography the way it used to be long before digital, smartphone, and social media.
On view until April 2019 at the HistoryMiami Museum