Flashes of New Years

The exhibitionists of Miami become art during the biggest party night of the year

Jill Waterman's idea to photograph New Year's celebrations began in Paris on a whim in 1984, while she was studying at the university. Since then it has evolved considerably and after nineteen years is well on its way to becoming one of the longest-running solo photo projects in the history of photography. Waterman, who lives and works in New York's East Village, has attended New Year's events in places as exciting as Shanghai and as decidedly unexciting, according to her, as Burlington, Vermont. She welcomed 2001 in Rio despite downpours, and in 2000 made a pilgrimage to the little town of Bethlehem. In 2008 she hopes to publish a book documenting the first 25 years of her New Year's Eve Project, portions of which have been exhibited around the world.

According to Waterman, the project "chronicles an innocence hidden in the human spirit, with open arms to an expectant future." This year, after September 11, she decided to forego foreign travel and settled on Miami. "It's been on my short list for a while," she says. Traversing the Magic City from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. by car, foot, Metromover, and taxi, attending both intimate gatherings and immense galas across the city, Waterman (with the aid of this trusty Sherpa) shot roll upon roll of color and black-and-white film. Using flash, ambient light, and a number of exposure and printmaking techniques, she opened her lens to our city and got an eyeful in return.

December 31, 2001, downtown Miami, 2:30 p.m. "I'm here to photograph New Year's Eve," Waterman explains patiently, surrounded by a large contingent of clowns in pre-Orange Bowl Parade limbo. They are Shriners, the ones who raise money for sick kids. Waterman is a clown-magnet with her Nikon camera and obtrusive Vivitar flash apparatus. They offer food from their portable barbecue and stick by her side, like puppy dogs, to get their pictures taken or chat. "Hey, New York!" one calls after her. They heckle one another about their wide angles and ply us with old gags, like the dollar-on-a-string trick. When we move on, they hand Waterman business cards printed with names like Muffles, Lucky, and Dr. Band Aid.

Snap: The various faces, kisses, poses formed in front of the camera, New Year's Eve
Snap: The various faces, kisses, poses formed in front of the camera, New Year's Eve

5:00 p.m. The parade begins as scheduled. Rain. Cold. More rain. Whoever came up with the theme of "Underwater Wonderland" should be sunk. Waterman's camera picks out a little girl in a bright slicker, precariously straddling a puddle. The toddler flirts innocently with the camera. The parade is a wash picturewise. Even the mermaids are getting soaked.

7:00 p.m. We are invited to the Shriners' party in the Best Western on Biscayne Boulevard. It's not part of the itinerary, but the rain is ceaseless so Waterman decides to stop in for a look: a group of clowns in various states of disarray, cold cuts and cheese cubes, plenty of booze, and Shriner wives sitting around the perimeter of the small square room. Waterman is introduced to a man in a fez, described only as "the potentate."

7:30 p.m. The most lively place on Calle Ocho seems to be Walgreens, mainly because it's open.

8:00 p.m. at Le Bouchon du Grove. We discover an alley that leads us to the Sandbar Grill. Paydirt. The Pimp and Ho Party is just getting under way. A table of young women, employees of the bar, chat casually, examining one another's outfits -- bustiers and garters, thongs and G-strings. Waterman gets in a few anonymous clicks before they notice and agree to pose. Suddenly the one in skin-tight leopard-print pants climbs, unprovoked, atop the bar for a little Playboy-style bump and grind.

10:00 p.m., Coral Gables. Hors d'oeuvres, a change of clothes, and a few intimate portraits at the luxurious home of Waterman's local contact, who helped secure our access to most of the parties. With two hours still till midnight, Waterman notices her flash battery is running inexplicably, dangerously low.

Vizcaya, 10:30 p.m. Wearing a thrift-store tuxedo jacket and gold-striped shirt, Jill Waterman explores this wonderland of stone and shadows: Champagne is spilling as well-heeled couples kiss in the moonlight. Waterman asks a few of them to pose for her in front of the fireworks, a photographic specialty of hers. She even instructs one couple to put their horns in their mouths and blow into each others' ears. But that's as schmaltzy as it gets. Mainly, she's said, she prefers the "unraveling of a moment, the emotion found on the periphery of a standard pose." One man looks on intently, drawing her into conversation. When he finds out she spent a recent New Year's in Israel he asks, "What was the better party, Jerusalem or Bethlehem?"

"Bethlehem, no question," Waterman responds without hesitation, all the while snapping fireworks. "Really?" he says, visibly disappointed. The moment has come and gone, no champagne, no kiss, just more pictures.

South Beach, 1:30 a.m. In Nikki Beach Club silver-suited male and female models in space-age RoboCop-style costumes part the crowd; people chase Waterman, asking her to take their pictures. Then she spots a young couple from Spain, far removed from the hype, kissing in a hallway by the bathrooms. Enshrouded in darkness, Waterman zeroes in on her subjects, adjusting settings, focusing, finally snapping undetected. "What catches my eye first," she says, "is the potential for composition."

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