A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs is exactly what it claims to be: photographs, made in Florida, by former National Geographic photographer (and one time head of Magnum) Nathan Benn. Most—if not all—of the photographs were made in two Geographic-funded trips, one in 1973, “to fill out another photographer’s coverage of the flourishing Cuban-born community centered in Little Havana;”* the other in 1981 to photograph the state in general. Most of the photographs included in A Peculiar Paradise are previously unpublished, including, if I read correctly, all of the 1981 pictures due to Benn’s inclusion of a human torso that had washed up on the beach in his selections for the Geographic’s pictures editor…
Before I get too far into the book, if the name Nathan Benn is unfamiliar to you, well, you’re not alone. I had some issues of National Geographic from the 1980s, and probably saw some of Benn’s pictures, and he did put out some books with the Geographic, but I only got to this book thanks to being on the powerHouse email list (I think) and in the process of planning a trip to Disney World at the time, so ordered it up hoping for some inspiration… Anyway. Despite his long tenure with the National Geographic, Benn pretty much gave up photography in the early 1990s, and instead turned his attention to the nascent online stock photo market, helping to develop and serving as the first president of Picture Network International, the first online stock photo agency, in 1991, and he served as the Director of Magnum Photos, Inc. from 2000-2002.
So, for the past, what, 30 years, Benn worked on the business side, rather than the production side, and in recent years (the 2010s) he began looking at his work, digging through his archive with the eye of a seasoned professional. This examination led to his first book with powerHouse, Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990, in 2013,** and this book, A Peculiar Paradise, in 2018.
Now on to the pictures, and the book itself.
If I have one complaint, it’s with the overall layout. Been reminisces and describes his career and discusses various facets, subgroupings, and individual pictures throughout the book. The text itself is well-enough written and engaging enough to be enjoyable, but it’s chopped up in ways that only a book laid out purely in publishing software, and then never actually looked at in person, could be. An idea or sentence that runs out of space on one page is usually only taken up again after 3-5 full spreads of full bleed photographs, and so you pretty much have to choose between looking at the pictures and reading the text.
For example, page 53, where a section on Benn’s earlier work in Little Havana begins, ends with “Stephen P. Clar, then mayor of Dade County, was quoted as saying, ‘Cubans were born in a…'”*** …in a what, exactly? Well, to find out, you need to turn past several pages of photographs: many photographs spill from the luggage of a newly arrived family as they unpack; some people arrive on a “freedom flight” from Cuba; a two page spread of a grotesque Santa Claus balloon being drug down the street by a young boy and some bored looking men, past various shops and crowds of people in a parade; two men, playing chess, with one man’s straw cowboy hat occupying more than 1/4 of the frame; a potato harvester, taking a break to salute, straw cowboy hat in hand; an older woman, looking peacefully and beautifully spiritual in a way that only older women can really do, as she places carnations around a shrine to Saint Barbara; and a dancer’s blurred, rhinestone & fishnet covered lower back and buttocks. All this before the text resumes, on page 63.
Do you even remember how the sentence began? Do you even care any more? Well, page 63 begins “…tropical climate, and they like it here.”
If you’re mildly hyperlexic, as I am, it’s incredibly frustrating to have to hunt for the next word or next sentence or next paragraph in a bit of text, and this layout
error decision hampers the enjoyment of both text and image for me, anyway.
That said, the text is ok, I suppose. Benn had a long and varied career and his reminiscences are interesting. He does make a few bold, if largely correct, claims that gave me pause, particularly on the role of technology.
Black-and-white documentary was already an archaic medium by the 1970s. The apotheosis of black-and-white documentary photography was the 1950s and 1960s, when Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and other brilliant photographers exploited the properties of small cameras and fast film to document the post-war world. Photographers continue to make black-and-white photographs today that are gorgeous and sometimes important, but photographing with Tri-X film in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is like painting with egg tempera on wood panels in the age of Rembrandt.Benn, Nathan. A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs. powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, 2018. p. 31
Sorta the same argument a bunch of people make for digital photography, for CDs (and, later, streaming services) all of which were, at least at their beginning, a far worse option. In 2021 the Digital/Film argument is largely silent, in my sphere of understanding anyway, and while digital won, film is actually experiencing a resurgence, with Kodak and Fuji both resuming production of previously-cancelled film stocks and new cameras and processing systems appearing on Kickstarter with alarming regularity.
And, besides, even today, in the second month of 2021, there are (probably) artists working in egg tempura on wood panel with fresh and exciting (and, more importantly,) marketable results, so nuts to you, Mr. Benn…
Really, he’s right, of course, as far as that goes, and Benn was/is clearly the early adopter par exellence, but I still like working with my, well, HP5…
Anyway. The Photographs. It’s Florida in 1981 (with a few pictures from the 1973 work in Little Havana), mostly shot on Kodachrome & Ektachrome. There are a few photographs of Disney World, but it’s mostly the rest of the state, from drunken parties and wet t-shirt contests during Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, to anti-immigrant protests (and groups of arriving and extant immigrants) in Miami, to retirees and, somewhat incongruously to my mind, a boxing gym, to Gator World and the Stars Hall of Fame wax museum. I mean, when I, a native Texan who has, so far, spent 6/7ths of his life landlocked in North Texas, think of Florida, I think of retirees and gators and drunken parties and glittery nouveau riche soirees, and, in the late 20-teens and early 20-twenties, vibrant immigrant communities and sweaty white folks with confederate flag baseball caps on yelling at them… It’s almost as if we’ve all been coasting for, well, my whole life. Benn has all of these pictures, including the crackers protesting in confederate flag swag.
Following a sorta revealing introduction from Verna Posever Curtis***, Benn writes a (chopped up) personal history, charting his birth to Florida transplants, early years, early photographic career, time with the Geographic, and a bit about the time since 1991. This biographical section is the only text not broken up by groups of pictures. I hate to bring it up again, but in looking back through A Peculiar Paradise again, again, I can’t help it…
Posever Curtis’s introduction is brief: 11 paragraphs that take up maybe one full spread overall. After a two-page spread of text, we turn to: red, yellow, and blue balloons and silhouetted figures looking out a bank of windows at a massive cruise ship; women participating in a wet t-shirt contest; worn and faded chairs on a balcony or porch; sugar cane fields, shot from a plane or (more likely) helicopters; and the tiny, shack-like US Post Office for Ochopee, FL. Only then do we find the last few paragraphs of the introductory text. I mean, who decided that was a good layout decision and who approved it? Did anyone even look at a proof copy?
Anyway. Benn’s biography is the only text that isn’t broken up, and it’s printed in a typewriter font to sort of point out its factual? dry/historical? what? nature. The rest of the book is split into groups of photographs:
- “Little Havana” (with the 1973 photographs and some random photographs from 1981, shoehorned in as coming out the endless driving around involved in “shooting communities”)
- “An Embarrassment of Riches” with pictures from Mar a Lago (during the long period it was up for sale before the
worstformer President bought it), a chic hotel, and Villa Viscaya, then, sorta incongruously again, the Epcot ball, a psychedelic scene that is apparently a dry lake bed, a plane spraying incecticide over a community built on reclaimed swamp, pictures from the wax museum (Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Judy Garland & the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man), an overgrown former monument that’s missing whatever was memorialized, a sunset down a winding narrow asphalt road through the swamp)
- “Critters” (the work from Gator World, also some roadside dinosaurs, a person in a gator costume, and a chihuahua in a dinosaur costume)
- “5th Street Gym” (a series shot in the titular boxing gym)
- “Oldest Floridians” (mostly wealthy, white folks; one picture of poor, older African American sisters and some of working class late-middle-age future Trump voters and middle class retirees)
- “Newest Floridians” (angry looking white folks with signs like “Be Proud. Say it Loud! English is the language of our country” and “Anarchy speaks Spanish” bookend some group shots of Jamaican migrant workers, eyes and a nose with darker skin peering from a hole in a window shade, Haitian refugees on a boat (chased by Benn as he worked on his Florida story for the Geographic), a man outside a circus tent, and a mural of pleasant Caribbean scenes… strikingly, and poking a hole in my theory that the confederate battle flag meant something different in the early 1980s (see, for example, the Dukes of Hazard), a couple of the white protesters carry American flags, but have the confederate flag on their baseball caps… it’s good to be wrong sometimes, and recognize and accept it
- “Is Everybody Happy?” (more wax figures; wealthy & smiling/frowning white folks at a ball; young white folks at a drunken Spring Break party; a scene from the floorshow at a supper club; photographs on a memory board at a ballroom)
- “Trouble in Paradise (a dark skinned man screaming out of a prison cell door; white people laughing at a gun range; a Mac-10 sub machine gun on the hood of a Firebird; a shakedown in a Little Havana club; a cop using a pay phone to call in something; a human torso that washed up on the beach that gives me some discomfort deep my gut; DEA agents doing their thing (raiding the squalid looking house of some small time drug dealers, laughing with the small timer they caught, later showing off an unrelated seizure of big bales of weed)
- “And so it goes” (some random pictures; Benn’s text describes his time with the Geographic after editors threw out all his Florida work over the dismembered torso picture)
And then the book ends with some Acknowledgements and the usual back matter.
The pictures are good: Benn knew what he was doing. No question on that score, and if the book had some competent layout, I’d feel better about it, but doing disrespect to the text means you disrespected the reader and the photographs that, more or less, match up with the text in ways that could’ve been far better collated. Given Benn’s time with the Geographic book division, I’d think maybe he knew something… and powerHouse isn’t a vanity publisher or anything, you’d think they would have a clue too.
And sorry to keep harping on it… I’m done now.
Apologies to all involved, but the layout ruins the book for me. Your mileage may vary. I rate A Peculiar Paradise a halfhearted 2.6 stars.
You can still find A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs direct from powerHouse or from various booksellers, new or used, for ~half the price. If you can get past the layout issues, and have some interest in or nostalgia for Florida in 1981, it might be worth your time. It’s going to go on my bookshelf for now, and I expect it’ll be one of the first to go when it comes time for the next culling. (It won’t be for awhile, as I have loads of space on the shelves at present…)
*Benn, Nathan. A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Pictures. powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, 2018. p. 28
**after a quick price check, I picked up a copy of Kodachrome Memory for cheap and to fill out my collection of “American Pictures” books, which includes classics by Evans, Frank, Shore, Sternfeld, and the like, and somewhat lesser known works by, for example, Shinya Fujiwara, Matt Martin, and others, even ones that don’t include “America” or “American” in the title, like David Freund’s Gas Stop.
***Posever Curtis writes “Recognizing that no such thing as ‘accurate’ color exists in photography, [Benn} freely, but judiciously alters his color palette and fine-tunes it in the direction he most favors. … Streamlined and tasteful, his color manipulations never overwhelm his subjects; instead they reinforce the construction of his compositions that remain unchanged from their analog originals.” (Posever Curtis, Verna. “Introduction,” in A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs. powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, 2018. p. 9) And make of that what you will.