Odd Shadows in a Sunny Land


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Before Art Basel, Miami Beach and “Miami Vice,” there was another South Florida.

It was cheesier, scarier, goofier and much closer to the bone. Times Square with alligators. “Funny and depressing at the same time,” said Michael Carlebach, a photojournalist, photographic historian and educator.

He knows. He was there from the early 1970s through 2004, teaching at the University of Miami and freelancing for The Miami Herald and its Tropic magazine, among other publications, including The New York Times. Fortunately, his work from this period was gathered in “Sunny Land: Pictures From Paradise” (Safe Harbor Books, 2010), so those of us who missed that other South Florida can revel in it all the same.

Mr. Carlebach’s respect and affection for his subjects is obvious in these pictures. So, too, many years later, is his undiminished sense of wonderment. Take that character making the O.K. gesture in “Demolition Derby Drivers, Hialeah,” from 1982 (Slide 16).

“I think his nickname was Bonehead,” Mr. Carlebach recalled. “He offered to tie me to the roof of his car so I could take better pictures. He said it would really give me a bird’s-eye view. I declined. But I appreciated the offer.”

Now take a second look at the diver in “Key West,” from 1971 (Slide 2). Mr. Carlebach was down on the beach photographing a homeless man when he heard huge splashes coming from the pool of a nearby motel. Curiosity impelled him to investigate. And this was what he beheld. “We never spoke,” he said, “but I’ve always loved her form.”

DESCRIPTIONMichael Carlebach Islamorada, 1971.

This wordless rapport links his work to that of Ken Heyman, with whom he studied, and Elliott Erwitt, whose influence is obvious, especially in “South Beach Pier” of 1977 (Slide 13). Mr. Carlebach said Mr. Erwitt’s book “Son of Bitch” sprang to mind when he came upon this scene. “I thought, ‘There’s an Erwitt.’ Since he wasn’t there, I took it.”

Now 67, Mr. Carlebach lives in Asheville, N.C. He has recently completed “Bain’s New York: The City in News Pictures, 1900-1925,” which will be available imminently from Dover Publications. He is also thinking about a broader companion volume to “Sunny Land,” drawn from his photographs around the country. It would be titled, “Us.”

Paraphrasing Eudora Welty, Mr. Carlebach said in a telephone interview, “I do try and keep moments from running away.”

“All this is out there,” he said about these brief, quiet and sometimes deliciously odd tableaux. “It’s easily ignored, but at our peril, if we forget who we are or if we think the only important stuff is what’s smack in the middle of the limelight.”




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