AMHERST — Andy Sweet, a young photographer right out of graduate school in the late 1970s, embarked on a proposed decade-long project documenting the elderly Jews of Miami’s South Beach.
These former New Yorkers, often Holocaust survivors, had retired to Florida’s sunny climes. Close to 20,000 Jews lived in South Beach’s 2 square miles. In time, other populations would flood Miami, and this group would thin out. But for a glorious moment, Sweet rejoiced in South Beach’s tight-knit Jewish community with an average age over 70.
Sweet’s project, “A Shtetl in the Sun,” now a traveling exhibition organized by Florida International University’s Jewish Museum of Florida, is on view at the Yiddish Book Center. In these color-drenched photos, the subjects seem to share affection with the man behind the camera.
The images are all untitled. In one, a tan couple wearing matching lavender bathing suits dance together on the beach, impish as kids. In another, three bathing beauties with bouffant hair and a feminine turn of the ankle pose poolside, owning it like 25-year-olds.
Sweet’s compositions are often straightforward, his subjects dead center, fully complicit and living it up. He worked at a time when color documentary photography was not quite trusted. And he was shooting old people, whose dignity is often best served in black-and-white. But he was looking for humanity more than dignity. In a population that had survived German concentration camps, he found playmates. In another image, an elderly man grabs branches over his head, ready to swing.
Not all of these photographs feature seniors. There’s a foray into Miami’s drag scene, and a startling shot of Anita Bryant behind a podium bearing a sign that invalidates gay rights with the simple use of scare quotes. Jerry Falwell sits on the dais behind her.
In 1982, well before his 10-year-project wrapped, Sweet was murdered in his Miami Beach condo. He was 28. His exuberant photographs, of a generation now gone enjoying the leisure of retirement, testify to his talent with a camera and in the darkroom. They also convey that, when it came to his subjects, Sweet was a man worthy of his name.
A SHTETL IN THE SUN: Photographs by Andy Sweet
At Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., Amherst, through March. 413-256-4900, www.yiddishbookcenter.org