Peripheral Vision

Michael Carlebach’s photographic collection at UM Libraries offers a stunning array of fleeting moments in America, marked indelibly by memory and loss.

The Richter Library’s Sharp Focus exhibition displayed work by photojournalist Michael Carlebach. Ladies dancing in Miami Beach (1971).
On a perfectly photogenic winter afternoon, Michael Carlebach—on faculty at the University of Mia from 1978 to 2005—is lingering amid a tour of his life’s work at the Otto G. Richter Library: some 2,500 photographs he has taken over the course of 40 years for such publications as The New York Times.

Now a resident of Asheville, North Carolina, Carlebach, age 67, returned to Miami last November for a day of celebrations surrounding Sharp Focus: Black and White Photographic Prints from the Michael L. Carlebach Collection, an exhibition drawn from his remarkable archive of prints, slides, and printed materials. (Although the exhibition is no longer on view at the Richter Library, many of the images are available online, and all are available for viewing within the library’s Special Collections Department.)

1972 presidential candidate George McGovern.
Carlebach’s photos are redolent with memory and loss. The now-gone Orange Bowl stadium figures prominently in Carlebach’s world, from a demolition derby (“One driver offered to strap me on the hood of his car for better pictures”) to 1976 Hurricanes games (“I’d be sent to cover the team and, instead of shooting the players, I’d focus on the edges of the field, the mascots and cheerleaders”).

For Cristina Favretto, head of Special Collections, the archive donated in 2008 by Carlebach—whose many titles include The Orgins of Photojournalism in America, Bain’s New York: The City in News Pictures, 1900-1925, and 2010’s Sunny Land: Pictures from Paradise—provides an “unusual glimpse into American life.”

Much of Carlebach’s archive is set in Florida and devoted to its past—when, as Carlebach observes with a rueful chuckle, “life really mattered.”

Highlights of the archive include a series on alcoholism, George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, and Haitian refugees at the Krome Avenue Detention Center. Carlebach also spent a decade as an unpaid photographer for Miami Children’s Hospital’s Ventilation Assisted Children’s Center sleepaway camp, where he documented the summertime experiences of children with cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Carlebach taught his first class at UM in 1973 “as a very part-time adjunct instructor of photography,” he says. He was hired full time in 1978, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University in 1988. In the late ’90s Carlebach was named director of the Program in American Studies at UM. He joined the Department of Art and Art History at the beginning of this century, serving as department chair for a couple of years before retiring in 2005.

Left, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, age 105 (1995). Right, musician Fred Neil, Coconut Grove
One morning during his recent return to campus, Carlebach met with School of Communication students in an introductory photojournalism class taught by Jim Virga. Michelle Seelig, B.S. ’92, M.A. ’95, a former Carlebach student who is director of the school’s Visual Journalism Program, recalls him talking to the class about “the importance of really communicating with people, connecting with them. He makes his subjects co-creators in his photographs. He’s always had so much enthusiasm and inspired me to study photography.”

Carlebach’s classroom visit also inspired visual journalism major Ana Calderone. “He went after stories that weren’t so obvious,” she notes. “He is sensitive to his subjects and his subject matter, which spoke to me.”

Later that day, as Carlebach’s former colleagues and students honored his career during a panel discussion and reception at the library, J. Tomás López, a professor in the Department of Art and Art History, pointed out that in photographs by masters, the “hand of the maker is so unobtrusive it eventually vanishes.”             

Most of the 2,500 photographs donated were shot on 35mm black-and-white film Carlebach hand-developed. He says he didn't shoot an activity but the people around it "where everything was really happening." Clockwise from top: A club in Goulds, Miami-Dade (1990); John and Yoko’s Times Square billboard (1971); and Tennessee Williams, Key West (1971).
Carlebach is a master of Americana who is unafraid to document the lives of some who never achieved the American dream. He screened slides of his work and talked about photography as “an agent for social change,” citing Walker Evans’s study of Depression-era sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Naturally, there was also a bit of UM nostalgia (“Our students did some great work in that old art department shack”) and some sound philosophy (“A camera is a passport to other worlds”).

The worlds Carlebach examines are often so profoundly ordinary that they become extraordinary. In one 1992 photo taken in Cody Wyoming, he shot a cowboy, along with a bull standing in a tiny corral, a tableau set in front of a pedestrian commercial building. The sign on the pen reads “Rodeo Tonite.” To the right, an average Joe straddles a bicycle, blowing a gum bubble. “If you’re lucky, things happen—like this guy suddenly showing up on his bike—and you can’t beat that kind of moment,” Carlebach recounts. “It’s like Eudora Welty once said, ‘A good snapshot stops a moment from running away.’”  

The Michael L. Carlebach Photography Collection, 5,000-plus silver prints, color slides, and publications, is housed at the University of Miami Otto G. Richter Library. More than half of the works have already been digitized and made available online at To learn more about this collection or others, contact Special Collections at 305-284-3247 or