In three decades of discreetly snapping candids of bikini beach babes, muscular bikers and strolling Hare Krishnas, photographer Constantine Manos is proud to admit not a single subject smashed his Leica and punched him in the face for being cheeky.
This isn't to say Manos shouldn't have been caught. He was, after all, the man who has descended on Daytona Beach's venerable Bike Week almost every year since 1982 to secretly shoot beer-chugging gearheads and tattooed biker chicks. Or visited Fort Lauderdale's Swap Shop, where he would linger in the parking lot just before dusk, waiting for the pale-orange sun to saturate the tacky red-orange-yellow walls of the building. Or to Hollywood Beach, where his lens would catch a moment of quiet lovers' embrace on the broadwalk and a child hopscotching on the bandshell stage.
"The trick is I never make eye contact and always keep moving," says Manos, now 78 and a part-time Dania Beach resident, during a tour of his new "Florida Color" exhibition at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. (The show opened Sunday.) "But I'm waiting for the moment and the believability of it. This moment happens once and will never happen again. They aren't looking at me, but they're alone in the crowd and alone in their thoughts."
A 60-print collection of the lensman's fly-on-a-wall-style daylight photography, capturing familiar South Florida locales from 1982 to 2011, was compiled from the candids in his ongoing "American Color" book series. With his small and unassuming analog camera (he switched to digital in 2008), Manos catalogs the muscular exuberance of a Miami Beach wellness event with as much unsettling voyeurism as he does at a beachside bikini contest on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
But Manos found the kitschy milieu of Daytona's Bike Week attractive enough to trade a lengthy career working in black and white for color photography. In one print, he intrusively frames a shirtless biker (his head is out of frame) flirting with a woman in a leather two-piece lounging on a motorcycle.
"See? I cut his head off," says Manos, making a karate-chop gesture toward the shirtless biker's neck. "The subject doesn't matter in the image. It isn't like National Geographic. Their heads are mostly out of frame, cut off. And when that happens, the person loses their individuality and instead becomes symbolic."
Manos often trains his camera on Fort Lauderdale's Swap Shop and its grungy chintz; one of several prints, for example, shows a lethargic-looking Ferris wheel operator, cigarette in mouth, in silhouette against the building's facade. For "Hollywood Beach, 2008," the back window of a bike-rental shack on Tyler Street frames a heavyset tourist adjusting her one-piece bathing suit. She's oblivious, like many others, to Manos' camera.
"I do personal documentaries," he says. "I take raw material, and when I push the button, each picture is a surprise. I wanted to make the real surreal and the ordinary extraordinary. These are slices of Americana that will be gone in 50 years."
Constantine Manos: Florida Color
When: Through May 12 (Manos will deliver a lecture 2-3 p.m. Saturday, March 30)
Where: Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Contact: 954-525-5500 or MOAFL.org