This Way to the Crypt


comments by Larry Mahoney - from his preface to the show, American Studies, 1983
photographs and text are copyrighted

[Visit Michael's own website. Set up in 2012]

Someday, when the final digits are added to the most simple of epitaphs above, the ghost of photographer Michael Carlebach will continue to rattle, tickle and perplex viewers of his images in this show, and far into the future. This is appropriate, a hapw thing. Michael and I have worked together in Miami for 15 years. If this man has a motto, and I'm not sure he does, it is "This Way to the Crypt", from a sign dimly seen in a church. Although his work is frequently seen on the national and international scene, we Miamians, fellow citizens of what the Cubans used to call "The Graveyard of the Elephants" metamorphosized today into the de-facto Capital of the Caribbean Basin, are especially fortunate that he lives and works among us.

There is greatness to this work. I say this with prejudice as the pencil and foolscap part of the photojournalistic team of Carlebach and Mahoney, not incorporated, that has operated in daily journalism, in government, in national and international magazines, for large corporations, in medicine and academia and, originally for a small, now quite dead Coconut Grove magazine called The Village Post.

The first photograph of Michael's that I ever saw was in the Post. It's also in the show; it has none of the drama of the Krome Camp series of photographs, MX-gauge shots of the heart, mind and America's racial guilt. This is merely a picture of a piggyback ride by a small child on its father's back. And, oh, the father is sad.

This exhibition underscores such sadness. Yet people somehow prevail. We Anglos say, "Life goes on (la vida continua su agitado curso). " Our Hispanic fellow Miamians say, "Asi es la vida (Such is Life). " Thank God that this agitated course can be humorous. This exhibition has much of the not always benevolent skepticism of the French ma-jor from Colgate who might have been George McGovern's White House Photographer. If.

I like to think of Michael's photography as having the same sense of place as Alfred Eisenstaedt's sometimes whimsical, more frequently stark legacy of visual Berlin. Miami and Berlin in the Twentieth Century have had much in common: the wrecker's ball and the artillery shell, the Caribbean refugees and Europe's DP's, politics both crazy and mean, especially virulent racism and, transcending it all, a healthy lust, depravity if you will and laughter on the long, long streets long.

Michael, who is leaving Miami temporarily to live in Providence, prefers to think of his work as having first been influenced by the bitter views of rural America as seen by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration (1935-1941) and by another photographer, Ken Heyman. Heyman's best known works are of family life. Michael is best known for his work in the Krome Detention Camps for Haitians as recently as 1981.

He and I did the Krome series together. Michael was the official documentary photographer for the Cuban/Haitian Task Force of the United States Department of State. His photographs of conditions in America's "Caribbean Ellis Island" went around the world; recently, they were the only contemporary stills in a special national public televi-sion show, Amencan Journey, in which writer Richard Reeves tried to get a fix on where we and our nation are going by retracing the footsteps of French prison offficial/writer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). Those still shots, a number of them in this exhibition, haunt and punch.

Michael has what an old colonel of mine liked to refer to as deep-serious gallows humor, something soldiers have shared over the centuries. In this exhibition, one sees it in the au-courant photograph of young girls being trained as riflemen for Central American combat; and in the eyes of winos, one of whom snuffed out his cigarette on the back of the photographer's neck; and in the horror of shopping for cofffins that look as if they carry the Body by Fisher label.

I wrote a letter to Henry King Stanford, then President of the University of Miami, In it, I compared Michael's work with Mathew Brady's and pointed out that there were 125,000 Mariel Cubans who came to Miami compared to the 65,000 bluecoats that Sherman marched through Atlanta. It's a question of body count.

The happier photographs here remind us that, on the way to the crypt, there is much to smile about for Michael and ourselves. Certainly the cheerleaders revel in healthy exhibitionism. Who would have thought that a diving woman in Key West could obtain such dimension? Or that the burnings of Washington D.C., in 1968 could be fixed as Dickensonian there amidst the spec 4's with their bayonets?

Larry Mahoney (1942- ) is a widely published writer living in Miami. He was a Ford Fellow in Advanced International Reporting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is a Viet Nam veteran and was a U.S. State Department officer during the Mariel boatlift and later in the Haitian Detention Camps. He has written extensively about the Caribbean.

[P.S. Don't the children in no. 14, "Memorial Day Parade" remind you of Dorothea's Lange's 1937, "Tenant Farmers without Farms, one hour later (Hardman County,Texas)?" Take a look, and see for yourself. (Fixing Shadows)]

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