The photography of UPF author Gary Monroe is featured in The Last Resort, a documentary film celebrating a community of Jewish retirees that made their home in the sunburned paradise of Miami Beach in the 1970s.
Here, Gary Monroe tells us the story behind the film and remembers his collaborator Andy Sweet (1953–1982), whose work is also featured in the documentary.
No one thought much about South Beach when it was a refuge for old world Jewish retirees. The elderly people were just there and taken for granted. As tourism died out in the 1960s, South Beach’s elderly became increasing isolated, but they thrived in the insular community.
Although I was born and reared there, while away from home at college I began feeling that South Beach’s old world Jewish population was special and significant. I understood that when these people passed away, the torch would not quite be handed off to their children and grandchildren. We are Americanized Jews, a world apart from the old world ways that characterized South Beach. It was the end of a lineage migration that started over a hundred years ago with the czarist pogroms in the Russian Empire. Some of those people filtered through Ellis Island and made their homes in the Northeast. They eventually made South Beach the last resort—a place to enjoy their final years and a place to live in accord with their beliefs.
I decided to spend ten years photographing the still vital but dying-off community. I asked my friend Andy Sweet, while we were at USF’s art department, if he’d like to join me, and he said he would. We headed to Colorado where we earned our MFA degrees (UC Boulder, 1977) and returned home to embark on the decade-long endeavor.
I would rise early. It wasn’t about morning light; that frankly didn’t matter. I was drawn to life, and life in this place was lustful. I couldn’t get enough; my friend was just the opposite. I’d have to call to wake him up mid-morning so that we could meet at Gino’s Pizza (Washington Avenue and Española Way), have a slice of pizza each and walk half a block south to get black-and-white cookies at Cohen’s bakery. Sometimes we’d wait until we reached Friedman’s bakery a few blocks further south. We were by far the youngest people around; we were the only young people amongst a sea of elderly people. It was a bit surreal. Then we’d head two blocks east to Ocean Drive to photograph the area.
My timing was prophetic. Ten years later the elderly people’s lifestyle had waned to just about nothing. We photographed the New Years Eve parties that hoteliers threw for their guests. These were a barometer that gauged the vibrancy of life in South Beach. Eight years in, the frequency and joyfulness had lessened. By the tenth year there were three lackluster parties. It was over.
Andy did not make it. In 1982 he was murdered. It was of course a tumultuous time. His family and friends were shocked while it seemed the city mourned. I continued our project alone.
About five years ago I was asked to present a talk about Andy’s photographs by the Miami Design Preservation League at the Tenth Street Auditorium. By this time, Andy’s sister Ellen’s partner Stan Hughes, a graphic designer, had scanned Andy’s small work-prints and salvaged these through Photoshop. His digital versions are as fine as Andy’s fine exhibition prints, which along with his negatives were lost by an art storage facility in Miami. With the restoration underway, Stan and Ellen started a Facebook page to commemorate, celebrate, and fund-raise for the rebirth of Andy’s photographs. This led to the filmmakers’ awareness of Andy’s made-for-the-movies narrative and our collaborative work in old South Beach.
Gary Monroe, a native of Miami Beach, has photographed throughout Brazil, Israel, Cuba, India, Trinidad, Poland, and Egypt, among other international destinations. He has received various honors and distinctions for his work, including two National Endowments for the Arts, four Florida Humanities Council Fellowships, a State of Florida arts fellowship, and two Fulbright Foundation fellowships. Monroe is the author of many books, most of which acknowledge unrecognized self-taught Florida artists, including The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters.