Palm trees; orange groves; flamingo-pink houses. These are the kinds of images that the State of Florida brings to mind, and these are an integral part of 26° 81°, Joshua Dudley Greer’s collection of large-format photos. But Greer goes deeper than that in his study of the town of Immokalee: to the trailer park, the migrant worker, the anonymous apartment buildings. In my own trips to Central and South Florida I have found a lot of poetry beyond the Mouse and his kin, in the scruffy commerce of small towns like Webster and Brooksville. Greer finds that and more in the people of Immokalee.
Immokalee, fifty miles west of Naples in Southwest Florida, was struck by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, which makes the town an apt stand-in for the struggle and resilience of the natives and immigrants who try to make a living there. Greer’s portraits are sensitive and dignified: of the dowager who is the last surviving daughter of the original settlers of the town, to the middle-aged African-American Reverend, to the young woman celebrating her Quinceañera.
26° 81° is an admirable project with its heart in the right place – half the proceeds of the book go to the Immokalee Foundation, a non-profit that “provides educational tools, opportunities, and encouragement to the children of Immokalee, Florida.” If strong photos and honorable intentions were all that made a successful photobook, then Greer’s monograph would easily pass the audition.
But the old saw that you can’t judge a book by its cover does not apply if the cover works against the contents, and this is where the book falls short of something more. The handsome binding is wrapped a banal jacket that depicts a powder blue map of the area; perhaps it was the book’s publisher, Joseph Dednik, (credited as “chairman of Prescient Ridge Management”) who saw fit to make the book look like a company report, its title reducing the humanity of the photographs to points on a graph.
Why not just call it “Immokalee?” Geography can be a potent metaphor – it may not be fair to compare this to of Alec Soth’s great Sleeping by the Mississippi, but the use of large-format cameras in a geographically themed project sort of begs the comparison.
Where that book’s title concept and cover enriched the work, the framing device here seems made to seduce the policy wonk more than the general photography consumer. I learned about the book from a photography blog that showcased Greer’s photography. Had I seen it on the table at Dashwood Books, I may never have opened it.
Perhaps the marriage of aesthetic and statiscial concerns describes where the town Immokalee, and the nation, has failed its citizens. Unfortunately, the book’s design does no favors for the strong work inside.