Book Review: A Peculiar Paradise
By Amy Schatz
Former National Geographic photographer Nathan Benn doesn’t want a glossy two-page spread of a dismembered corpse that washed ashore Biscayne Bay to dominate his 2018 collection A Peculiar Paradise; rather, Benn aims to show that the state of Florida in the 1980s was more than just a battlegrounds — and a dumping grounds — for the ongoing narcotics war. Although a headless torso and floating limbs are strange enough attractions, more creatures, characters, and impossibly convoluted politics pervade this Kodachrome study of the photographer’s home state.
In 1981, Benn was on assignment for National Geographic in Florida to document immigrant communities, specifically Little Havana, a Miami enclave for Cuban immigrants. Many of the photographs in his book are outtakes from that assignment — some rejections from the editorial board were due, in part, to internal company turmoil that Benn believes also impacted his work. His superior at the time, the Senior Assistant Editor for Illustrations, was notorious for rejecting provocative images and “photography that was outside the comfort zone of a Midwestern, middlebrow audience,” according to Benn.
A Peculiar Paradise is the story of Florida exactly as Benn wants to tell it, if nothing else. A cross-section of heady, South-Atlantic life emerges from this half-autobiography, half-ethnography as Benn assumes a naturalist’s eye and a Rockwell-esque predilection towards the range of human emotion that can be portrayed in a still image.
Roadside alligator spectacles and neighborhood drug busts follow images of palatial Palm Beach homes populated by the rich and famous; the distinct spires of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center waver in the background of some photos, drawing a clear distinction between the tribulations of space travel and the trials of a more terrestrial struggle. Benn clearly has a long-held interest in the 5th Street Gym, a famous Miami boxing studio whose notable alumni include Muhammad Ali.
Among other prescient topics, Benn questions “paradise,” a term commonly associated with Florida’s aquamarine shores and sandy beaches, and whether the state fits the bill for the ideal subtropical sanctuary; this claim seems ludicrous alongside images of weary, sweat-stained centenarians and a dried-up lakebed. Steamy wetlands beg the question: Is Eden really so humid? And anti-immigration protests imply a sunny afterlife intended for one demographic only.
Benn was born and raised in South Florida, but this work is hardly a nostalgic tribute to his childhood, nor does it reveal the dark side of the Sunshine State. If anything, Benn traverses the land with the attitude of an observer who is familiar with his surroundings, but not necessarily content with or within them. Imbued with the gritty realism of a trip-wired photo captured on poaching grounds, Benn’s Kodachrome studies reveal an intricate ecosystem vibrant with international culture and reeling in the wake of political turmoil.
A Peculiar Paradise was published by powerHouse Books in 2018.