Photographer Nathan Benn grew up in 1950s Miami, back before Little Havana and Little Haiti
But just one day after graduating from the University of Miami in 1973, Benn packed up his car and headed to Washington, D.C., to work as a photographer at National Geographic. He couldn't wait to get out, he says. "I wanted to escape the homogeneity and the old-fashioned Southern cities as fast as I could."
Growing up, Benn says Vizcaya's architectural style opened his mind to a world beyond mid-century Miami. And as a college student, the marble lobby of the old Miami Herald building intimated to him that there were more interesting places to visit and photograph beyond his everyday surroundings. But after spending some years on assignment in countries including South Korea and domestic locales such as the Chesapeake Bay, Benn was asked to cover a city undergoing a drastic change with international implications.
That city was his hometown.
For his first assignment in Florida, Benn was tasked with documenting the influx of Cuban exiles arriving in Miami in the early '80s. “The lead photograph of that was a man coming off of an airplane from Havana with a big smile on his face, being greeted... It was appropriately a very upbeat, very positive story."
Many of the photographs Benn took in Miami and Florida during that time period are the subject of a new HistoryMiami exhibition titled, "A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs by Nathan Benn." The exhibition is opening in tandem with Benn's latest book of the same name.
“When people think of National Geographic photographers, they think about following wild animals on African plains or living with villagers in New Guinea, and that’s not what I did. I liked stories that were generally urban-based... and had a strong component of culture, and sometimes art and architecture.”
The photo series comes at a time when Miami is, once again, in the midst of a period of great change. The Little Havana that Benn photographed in 1981 is now largely a community of Central American immigrants. And as historic communities such as Little Haiti grapple with creeping gentrification and soaring rent prices, Benn remembers growing up at a time before the arrival of the Caribbean immigrants who came to define the neighborhood.
He photographed Ku Klux Klan rallies in West Miami as a college student working for the Miami News. Later on, when he returned on assignment for National Geographic in 1981, he says the hoods were gone but sentiments around the city remained the same in some pockets.
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"I didn't photograph any Klan meetings in Miami in 1981, but I photographed people without hoods who were saying the same thing... marching up Flagler Street and saying [things] against biculturalism, against immigration." It's not lost on him that as headlines about a so-called migrant "caravan" dominate the news cycle in 2018, many of those same tensions remain — and they've gone national. "Florida was looked at as the problem child among the 50 states. Well, now some of those problems have come home to every state. That's why this exhibition and book, I’m glad they’re coming out at this time."
Though Benn documented racial tension amidst the arrival of refugees and immigrants and the stark realities of the 1980s drug wars in Miami, a large part of the exhibition also captures the everyday charm of Old Florida. "I spent most of my time not trying to photograph the dark side, but photographing just the way people lived across the state," says Benn.
"I hope that people will be troubled by the things that were troubling. I hope people will develop a greater appreciation for the fantastic, unique environment that we live in — how lucky Floridians are to live in a state where you have over a million alligators running around... to appreciate the cultural diversity of the state and its fantastic history, and to accept that you can't only regret what is gone. You have to really appreciate [and] embrace that it is such a privilege to live in a place that is as dynamic as South Florida."
"A Peculiar Paradise: Florida Photographs by Nathan Benn." Thursday, November 8, through April 14, 2019, at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., 305-375-1492; historymiami.org. General admission costs $10; $8 for students and seniors; $5 for children ages 6-12; and free for kids 5 and under.