Letter16 Photo Book Captures a Forgotten Time in Miami's History

Before the sweet instant photographic gratification presented by digital devices, citizens of the world documented their lives using this very sensitive and fickle thing called film. It had a limited number of exposures and you couldn’t see what or if you captured anything until it was developed in your college's darkroom or by some pervert at the corner store. And unlike the ten identical photos of your nephew that your mom just uploaded to Facebook, which are now forever etched into the ether, there are countless significant 35mm fine art photographs sitting in boxes somewhere, with the potential to remain forever unseen.

The desire to showcase images trapped in that somewhat obsolete medium was what drove journalist and former Miami New Times staff writer Brett Sokol and photographer and Bridge Red designer Francesco Casale to found the nonprofit Letter16 Press. With this project, they are doing the hard and expensive work of taking 35mm images by three Miami photographers, digitizing them and honoring them in oversized, hardcover art books. The images specifically ride the line of art and photojournalism and document times, places, and people that the internet would end up otherwise forgetting. 

Each of the three books features an artist that worked in Miami from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. Sokol says, "It came out of a realization that there was this incredible pool of artistic talent in Miami that wasn’t getting the attention it demands.” The “cruel irony,” he continued, about digital photography is that it’s easy to use and share, but “it has put up a veritable wall with the past.” 
The first book was published earlier this year. It features the work of Al Kaplan who attended high school and later spent his last years in Miami. There Was Always A Place To Crash: Al Kaplan's Provincetown 1961-1966 captures a bit of history most people didn't think to document. It features an intro by the great Pope of Trash, John Waters, who remembers those bohemian days, living in gay rights activist Prescott Townsend’s treehouse with freewheeling artists and hippies.

The second book will be published this Saturday. We Are Everywhere And We Shall Be Free: Charles Hashim’s Miami 1977-1982 might have wider appeal for South Florida audiences. Hashim, a former Miami-Dade College professor, immortalized the expressions of Magic City audiences — whether at concerts, gay pride parades, KKK rallies, or religious revivals. His concert photos don't include Pete Townsend onstage, but rather the groupies at his feet. 

Miami has always been weird, but the years captured by Hashim in this book are truly some of the most far out, showing a very transitional time for the city. “That more nuanced story is what’s in the photos that Charles Hashim took,” explains Sokol of that era of the Mariel Boatlift and Cocaine Cowboys. “I believe that Miami was born in 1980… That was when the city effectively flips over from a sleepy Southern town into this new multicultural city,” Sokol reflects, “It’s an incredibly complex story, and a good way to get into it is ‘How did we get here today from 1980? What set the stage for that? How did this all happen?’ And if you take a look at these photos that Hashim took, you really get an idea of what was going on in Miami behind the headlines, what it was like day to day for the people who lived and played here. 

“You see the old Miami literally coming apart at the seams and something new is being born."  
And Hashim is still at it. This past Halloween, he went to Wynwood to catch the colorful costumes and characters that decorated the arts district. Sokol will be interviewing Hashim this Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Miami Book Fair International with photographer and author Andrew Kaufman. When you get a load of the photos, you’ll want to hear all of the photographer’s tales of a time you may have never seen, but which says so much about how we live here today. 

Miami Through the Lens 1977-1982, a conversation with Brett Sokol and Charles Hashim
Miami Book Fair International, 10 a.m., MAGIC Screening Room (Building 8, 1st Floor), 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Saturday, November 21. Free.

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Liz Tracy has written for publications such as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Refinery29, W, Glamour, and, of course, Miami New Times. She was New Times Broward-Palm Beach's music editor for three years. Now she plays one mean monster with her 2-year-old son and obsessively watches British mysteries.
Contact: Liz Tracy