Michael Carlebach’s Miami

(Originally published on MOLI 6/10/8)

Miami is a photojournalist’s dream. The abundant subtropical sun is god’s little lightbox, and there’s always a rich pageant of subjects: landscapes, characters, news stories, even cute animals.

Michael Carlebach is an excellent study of character. Miccosukee Indians bathing, a snake-oily condo salesman, a freshly mugged guy in a bar, and Jackie Gleason all find themselves pinned to the wall in his black-and-white portraiture show Witness: South Florida, at the Miami Center for the Photographic Arts.

Featuring a profusion of sun-kissed and party-weary South Floridians with furry mustaches, Witness is as much a time capsule as a document of a region. Some of the photos remind me of what Iggy Pop once said to me, about when he first discovered Coconut Grove in the ’70s: “I spent a night or two as the couch guest of a young neo-hippie, in a house that had roof tiles and stucco, and the cement was cracking and lizards and snakes were coming and going and vines were in the kitchen. The inside was going out and the outside was going in. I thought, `This is the place for me.'”

People talk nostalgically about Miami before Gloria, before Madonna, before Andrew and Wilma (all those dramatic divas). But aside from a TK Records greatest hits album, nothing has conveyed to me this unique time and place in American history as well as Carlebach’s photos.

These aren’t the glamour shots of the future Ocean Drive, though there is a little Miami Vice in them. Shooting regular folks in their homes and habitats, Carlebach is Miami’s Weegee. Other photos capture the quiet intellect of a city generally considered obsessed with appearances: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Tenneessee Williams stand alongside shots of a Mariel boatlift refugee and of a pregnant woman and her boyfriend – the “boyfriend” looking so much like a woman, you have to take the caption’s word for it.

Health demands led Carlebach from South Florida a couple years ago (he needs to stay near the North Carolina institute that gave him two new lungs). At Witness’s opening Saturday, he spoke of how he missed the crazy visual stimulation of Miami. Lots of other photographers were there to see these quintessential documents of the Magic City; many of them are Carlebach’s old students at the University of Miami and current employees of The Miami Herald. As happens at any gathering of journalists these days, there was glum talk about the change in times, outmoded technologies, decaying economies.

Along with informing us of the present, journalism is the future documentation of the past. Maybe, we need it now more than ever.


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