American Studies

Michael L. Carlebach

"Many years ago I concluded that for me truth and beauty, and perhaps wit and wisdom as well, are more likely to reside in what is ordinary and seemingly insignificant. This is, perhaps, a sideways look at America and American culture, but it is one that can produce moments that describe us all—but without makeup and bereft of a spokesperson."

In my long love affair with photography, or more precisely with photojournalism, I never developed much affection for the dramatic events that newspapers and magazines feed on for an instant, or the incendiary personalities who elbow their way into our consciousness. I have, to be sure, made plenty of pictures of news events, and of the glittery people in their midst, but I am happiest when I can sneak away and find what has been or will be forgotten or neglected or overlooked. That means at football games I pretty much ignore the celebrity quarterbacks and wide receivers, preferring instead to look at the folks on the sidelines, the cheerleaders, and the curious people who inhabit mascot outfits.

In Florida, where I lived for many years, and elsewhere in America, dramatic vistas are commonplace, and the clangor of the unknown for their promised fifteen minutes of fame, and the already famous for an extra fifteen minutes, assures a steady supply of eager and sometimes even photogenic subjects. Many years ago I concluded that for me truth and beauty, and perhaps wit and wisdom as well, is more likely to reside in what is ordinary and seemingly insignificant than in the supercharged personae whose incessant bluster and self-promotion guarantees attention but delivers little except noise and more noise. So I usually look outside the media glare, outside the alluring limelight, for images. This is, perhaps, a sideways look at America and American culture, but it is one that can produce moments that are quietly decisive and memorable, moments that describe us all—but without makeup and bereft of a spokesperson.

Holy Joe, Miami Beach, 1976.
Everglades target practice, 1981.
Key West, 1971.
Dade County youth fair, 1971.
Demolition Derby drivers, Hialeah, 1982.
Dinner Key Flea Market, 1978.
South Beach pier, 1977.
University of Miami mascot, Orange Bowl, 1975.
Burnsville, North Carolina.
Miami Beach, 1995.
South Beach, 1988.
North Key Largo, 1980.
Savannah, Georgia.

This essay first appeared in the Photography Issue (vol. 17, no. 2: Summer 2011).

Michael L. Carlebach is a photographer and historian. His works include American Photojournalism Comes of Age and The Origins of Photojournalism in America.

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