Is there any image more indicative of Florida than an elderly woman plopped on a bench in front of palm trees swaying in what will likely be the beginning of a nasty thunderstorm? All that’s missing is a pink flamingo trellis and somebody in Mickey Mouse ears.
This image is one of more than 50 photographs shot in Florida, roughly from Daytona Beach to Miami, over the past several decades by Constantine Manos, a former Army photographer of Greek ancestry who has worked for Esquire, Life and Look. In his series, titled “Florida Color,” which opened recently at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, he takes a long, hard, unsentimental look at Florida’s denizens and the beaches, storefronts, circuses, playgrounds and street corners in which they congregate.
The result is far from an objective cross-section of Florida’s population, but rather a study of its outliers. He lingers on the fringes, cataloging the illicit, the depraved, the dispossessed, the hedonistic, the ugly. Daytona Beach, under Manos’ lens, is a playground for sinful bikers, and Miami is a dumping ground for lumpy, unwanted seniors. Many of his images are both sad and funny at the same time, like one of a man with a cane passed out at a booth in a Miami Subs.
Disabled people turn up with unusual frequency in Manos’ work, be they rolling wheelchairs on a beach or walking down the street with crutches, suggesting the sobering flipside to the hedonistic abandon of the young people. In one signature shot, he focuses on three bikini-clad torsos and legs dancing in the foreground, while cars packed with male oglers cheer them on in the background. In many cases like this one, Manos makes the deliberate decision to cut his subjects off at some point, usually at the neck, thereby reducing them to sexual objects, which is their desire, after all.
In another shot, a big-haired woman with skimpy fetish wear and a rose tattoo on her upper arm takes the hand of a shirtless beefcake with an impressive six-pack; he too is cut off at the neck. Lord knows what disease-prone trouble they’ll be getting into. In the most repulsive shot in the series, a Daytona woman obscenely exposes her breasts and tongue while standing on the beach in front of a cadre of Buddhist monks, a moment of exhibitionism so profoundly insensitive that it gives this entire state a bad name. It makes Courtney Love look classy.
But even in Manos’ documentation of Florida’s wayward elements, there are intimations of mystery that undercut their general sense of moral degradation. In a shot of Solo cup-clutching partiers on Fort Lauderdale Beach, a scantily clad young woman in the center of the frame stares directly into the camera with a mournful, desperate expression that suggests more than just the depressants she’s probably ingested. It’s like a part of her doesn’t want to be there at all; call it Girls Gone Introspective.
And in a photograph from Daytona Beach, a couple embraces, sort of, in the far right of the frame, standing in an incomplete industrial building near the beach. She’s hugging him with all of her feeling, but his arms hang limply at his sides. Are they breaking up? Or is he just slow to react to her sudden embrace? Manos’ best works are not the ones that provide answers about Florida’s basest residents, but the ones that ask questions.
“Constantine Manos: Florida Color” is on display through June 9 at Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $14 adults, $7 children and $9 seniors and military. Call 954/525-5500 or visit moafl.org.