Some snapshots from Miami, 1942
Second only to the sea, the Miami sky has been the greatest comfort in my life past 50. On a good day, when the wind blows from the south, the light here is diffuse and forgiving.
Photography being a relatively simple skill to pick up, it’s rare to find photos by someone who really has no idea of the basics regarding composition, framing and so on. So rare in fact that the photos can be more interesting than they would be had they been taken with a little care or knowledge. Such is the case with this group of snapshots, taken at Miami Beach in March 1942.
Our photographer really didn’t get it. If he or she – on gut feeling alone the handwriting makes me think it’s a he – had picked up a ten cent Kodak manual, (one probably even came with the camera) basic advice like keeping the horizon straight, finding a point of interest, applying the rule of thirds, would have improved the images. But here’s the real difference between a photograph and a sketch: once the snap has been taken it can’t be improved. You can’t go back and erase the tree. You are left with what you did. All that can be done as compensation is take another photograph. Frankly, I don’t think our photographer cared that much. He was like a kid with a new water pistol; point in this direction and squeeze, and now point this way and do the same. Don’t bother aiming; it’s a water pistol, not a real gun. Don’t bother with that manual. You’re not a photographer; you’re a tourist.
It isn’t that uncommon to hear people complain they aren’t good photographers. Usually, what they mean is that they can’t take photos that look like masterpieces. They tried taking a shot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but though they had Ansel Adams in mind, they got back a flat, muddy looking image. They sought the decisive moment but it always seemed to be thirty seconds ahead of them. Here’s the thing. I’m sure that had I been standing next to our photographer on the beach at Key West that early Spring day in 1942, I would have seen the point of interest in this scene and moved in. What I would have taken would be a shot of a girl in a short skirt bending over – a classic, or typical, human interest scene showing the humour in daily life, or some cliché along those lines. Instead what we get is girl in short skirt bending over, boyfriend with towel over his shoulders standing next to her, another man walking away, a fairly well populated beach and a jetty, to start with. If the camera is an eye, our photographer observes more than most professionals.
Miami Beach, March 1942. The date seems important, especially when we know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour just three months earlier, and in February 1942 the Miami Beach Training Center opened. That might explain what our photographer was doing there, but what if it didn’t? Thanks to a mass media that finds nuance annoying, or downright subversive, we tend to think of the U.S.A post Pearl Harbour as behaving like a single cell organism. The profound shock of the event, the realization that America is now at war, the man looking at his wife as they both become aware that their world has changed. What if it wasn’t like that? What if our photographer had worked so hard the last year in the Detroit car factory or the New York law office, been so rattled by his divorce or the death of his mother, or just come from Minnesota where the snow was still two metres high, that, frankly, so far as Miami in March was concerned, Pearl Harbour might as well be on Mars? Recall September 11, 2001: for all the pieties we read about how the nation had changed, how a threshold had been broached, what we saw was a government behaving in unsurprising ways and a country that quickly reverted to type. What had changed was usually so subtle that it was hard to discern. The crime, the birth, marriage, divorce, economic parity and other vital statistics weren’t fundamentally altered. Our photographer may have resolved to offer his life to his country if it asked, but that wasn’t going to be revealed in his photos.
So let’s think about Miami, not the national state of mind (a fiction) instead. What if you had spent your life in Detroit or on a Minnesota farm or a New York suburb and you went to Miami in 1942; what would you find? Well, the Olsen Hotel for a start. It was one of dozens of Art Deco, or Streamline Moderne hotels that had been opened on the beachfront. Miami had embraced the moderne style like nowhere else in America, and today we are grateful for that (and to the conservationists who have fought for the preservation of buildings). Art Deco is to Miami what the skyscraper is to New York, the minaret on the skyline to Istanbul, the art nouveau portal to Budapest; it defines the city. All physical descriptions start from that detail. In Miami, Art Deco wasn’t just an architectural style; it spoke of a culture that was distinct from New York and other northern cities on the Atlantic seaboard. In Miami, where it was summer all year round, people dressed to fit in with the buildings, in white linen suits and floral print frocks. They nodded smugly when Minnesotans talked of the blizzard or when New Yorkers tried to introduce formality to the proceedings. Geographically, Miami was closer to Havana than it was to any other state in the U.S. It was like another country.
Here is a view of the Casa Marina, one of the best known resorts on the seashore, and one quietly muses on what happened when Robert Mitchum and a busload of starlets turned up. Yes, it was that kind of place, back when excess was considered both interesting and healthy. Rough and disorganized as this photo is, it tells us a lot about Miami, 1942. The building still exists, still as a hotel, with a long palm tree lined promenade leading up to the entrance. If that was in place in 1942, what we have is a tourist approaching tentatively and reaching a polite distance, accidentally cropping the bottom that would show the path. This is a Miami landmark, a place no tourist should avoid, even if the experience is as vicarious as viewing it from a safe distance. Of course we only have a few photos from the collection and don’t know that our photographer didn’t venture downtown to document Miami’s flourishing skyline.
In the 1940s Key West was on the cusp of a boom. It wasn’t yet the retirees’ paradise, nor a refuge for Cubans, though anyone with foresight could have seen those on the horizon. I’m assuming Ocean Beach Cottages was an official name, although Googling it brings up a variety of places that are more prestigious than these places. Here, Ocean View Cottages look like the types of cottages more budget minded tourists would rent for a few days, have barbecues, run down to the beach, meet like minded folks and agree that when they hit 65, this was the place to set up camp. Behind the roughness and disorder of these images is a view of Miami more considered photographers would miss.