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An Unsung Photographer’s Ode To Other Unsung Artists

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
September 22, 2012

This blog has a habit of featuring photographers whose names you’ve never heard — whose names we hadn’t even heard, to be honest, except by chance encounters.

But the world is mostly populated with unsung people. And in that sense, photographer Gary Monroe’s life mirrors the lives of the people he photographs.

Some quick context:

A few months back, Monroe helped us navigate the storied tale of Florida’s “Highwaymen,” a group of self-taught African-American artists featured in this special interactive. The loosely allied group has gained increasing fame in recent years, owing in part to Monroe’s research and photography.

When he first encountered the Highwaymen hawking art on the side of an interstate (hence their nickname), he thought he’d take a few portraits. But as he spent more time with them, learning their stories and collective history, he photographed some more. Then he got a book deal. And then another deal. And suddenly, he was on a lecture circuit, effectively becoming the leading expert on this small, niche topic.

“I photographed what interested me,” he says; at the time, that included local artists in his home state of Florida. Monroe got an MFA in 1977 with a focus in photography. And although he doesn’t consider himself a documentarian, throughout the years, that’s effectively what he became.

The Picture Show quickly learned the Highwaymen weren’t the only subjects Monroe has focused on over the years. In fact, he has a vast archive that he’s only begun to digitize — and is negotiating with Duke University’s special collections about its acquisition.

“I have always photographed incessantly,” Monroe says, “probably because it is my nature to do so.” And about his nature — there’s no other way of putting this: Monroe works like a dog.

“I don’t know what motivates anyone, myself included,” he says. “Whatever the motivation, I take solace from disciplined work.”

Now 60 years old, Monroe has remained mostly in Florida, with the exception of some 25 visits to Haiti. Under his belt are stories of “old world Jewry” in South Beach, Miami’s Little Haiti Community, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and a trailer park for registered sex offenders.

The photos here represent a mere fraction of a fraction of a fraction of Monroe’s archive, but he digitized this narrow edit specifically for The Picture Show.

Monroe has consistently photographed with black-and-white film — a habit he keeps up today. That doesn’t make the job any easier, but it makes for a consistent vision. Despite having published several books about the Highwaymen, having covered historic events and documented niche cultures, Monroe remains humble:

“I’m not a historian. I’m not an academic. I’m not a journalist,” he says. “I am only a photographer.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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