Florida has long been one of the most intriguing of the 50 states. From election drama to news of the weird, the state has been the source of a rich variety of stories going back over the years. Photographer Nathan Benn’s new book, “A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs” (Powerhouse, 2018), brings together images he shot as a National Geographic photographer. The book is a rich source of the kinds of things that make the state such an interesting place, and a look back at one of the most fertile times in its history, the 1980s.
The 1980s in Florida was a time that saw the state alternately staid and indecorous. While parts of the state remained rather quiet, other parts were caught up with issues like a roiling narcotics trade and increasing immigration from the Caribbean and South America. And who better to turn their lens on it than a native son?
As it happens, Benn was perfect for the job. He was born and grew up in Miami, and as he notes in the book, “Florida attained its peak of notoriety as the problem child among the 50 states in November 1981, when Time magazine published a cover feature titled ‘South Florida: Paradise Lost,’ citing crime, drugs and refugees. Cocaine cowboys were glamorized on television in ‘Miami Vice’ and at the cinema in ‘ Scarface’ . . . . From my perspective, with selfish aspirations to produce serious photojournalism, the situation was excellent.”
In an introduction to the book, photography curator Verna Posevar Curtis couldn’t agree more. Of Benn’s vivid (helped along by the intensity inherent in Kodachrome film), sometimes surreal, portrait of his home state, she says:
“Who observes the State of Florida more acutely than those born and bred under its sun, captive of its ever-present water, within its changing ecology and demographics? For those who spend enough time in Florida to allow it to seep into their consciousness, the dense environment enriched by subtropical flora and fauna cannot help but remain for all time. Nathan Benn’s well-paced story and photographic images on the pages that follow ease us into an understanding of this complex paradise during a time of decided prosperity for some, and for others, the modest hope for its reward.”
The following is a small slice of “A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs.”
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