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Josh Aronson, Tropicana
Photography Josh Aronson

These photographs depict the gentle and free spirited youth of Florida

Photographer Josh Aronson breaks with the Sunshine State’s traditional imagery to narrate the harmonious and diverse life of young Floridians

“It began with me looking at sensationalised narratives about youth in Florida and asking how I could use my lens to offer something different,” says Josh Aronson about his new photo book, Tropicana – which is released today. Based between Brooklyn and his hometown Miami, Aronson took his first steps as a photographer by portraying the Floridian local fashion, music, and art scene.

Inspired by the work of fellow photographers Mark Steinmetz and Ryan McGinley as well as the cinematography of Oscar nominees The Florida Project and Moonlight, Aronson’s self-published project “adds something beautiful, luscious, and queer to the canon of Florida imagery.”

Featuring young artists, activists, and local talent, Tropicana immerses the readers in colourful scenes of harmony and play capable of challenging the stereotypical depiction of the Sunshine State — from “Florida Man” to Spring Breakers, and XXXTentacion

The series reveals the unseen blissful face of Floridian youth by capturing young locals at ease in their natural surroundings – whether it be a white-sand beach or the tropical scenario of the Everglades. In Tropicana, the body silhouettes of Aronson’s subjects stand out against vividly blue skies and green vegetation patches, as they move gently becoming one with the ecosystem. 

Through an “honest gaze”, the photographer renders the authenticity of a new generation of Floridians currently taking over the arts and activist scene. Celebrating the spontaneous and peaceful essence of the Sunshine State, Aronson aims at reviving the warm affection that united him to his home as a boy. 

Below, we speak with Aronson about the need for a more inclusive representation of Florida youth culture, his artistic inspirations, and images as a way to gain access to experiences.

What is it that made you choose Florida as the setting for your new photography book Tropicana?

Josh Aronson: Well, I was raised in Florida, and growing up I came to know a side of the state that I rarely saw portrayed in films and photographs. As a photographer, I feel it is important that I capture what I know and share those moments. For me, that is the sensitive, blissful, and tender side of the Florida I knew as a boy.

You said that the book breaks with sensationalised narratives about youth in Florida – how would you say it does so? 

Josh Aronson: I think the book breaks from sensational narratives of youth in Florida by depicting youth with an honest gaze. I find typical narratives about youth in Florida, such as Spring Breakers, the story of the ‘Florida Man’ or XXXTentacion, focus on the unruly, hedonistic, tragic, and violent side of youth in Florida. I feel they overlook our elegance and beauty. Tropicana creates a space for that.

“I struggled to find hardly any photographs depicting young Floridians as gentle and free, and I felt that needed to change” – Josh Aronson

Featured in Tropicana are young local talents, artists, and activists. What does the artistic and politically-engaged nature of the subjects portrayed in the book add to the imagery you want to give of Florida?

Josh Aronson: The artists, activists, and local talents I photograph add a richness to my overall portrait of young Florida life. I cast subjects whose own work engages with Florida in critical and exciting ways. In making Tropicana, I collaborated with artists from Little Haiti to West Palm Beach; skate kids from Andrew Downtown to Good Thinking Miami, and activists from Fempower MIA. This style of casting is a way to broaden my horizons, expanding my portrait of Florida beyond my own childhood experience. 

In The Florida Project – one of the works that inspired your book  six-year-old Moone enjoys the playful lightheartedness of summer vacation with her friends while adults are forced to face the numerous and unpredictable struggles of daily life. How does the film resonate with the emotions and feelings Tropicana is trying to evoke?  

Josh Aronson: I think The Florida Project presents a tenderness. It’s all about seeing Florida in an innocent light. Tropicana exists in a similar vein. In the same way, Moone and her friends treat Florida as a playground, my subjects, too, climb atop motels and nestle in seaside alcoves. Additionally, the struggles at the underbelly of The Florida Project mirror, in a way, the climate crisis at the heart of Tropicana. In my work, I occasionally present symbols of climate change  such as tidal waves – as a subtle reminder of the ways in which Florida life is still endangered and oftentimes not able to be enjoyed as fully as I’d like.

You said Tropicana has been influenced by the work of photographers such as Mark Steinmetz and Ryan McGinley. What did you borrow from each of them and in what aspects of the book can we see your unique contribution to photography? 

Josh Aronson: Well, as far as my unique contribution to photography, I’m not sure I should be the one to say. What I do know is that I saw a need that I wanted to fill. At least in the works I know, I struggled to find hardly any photographs depicting young Floridians as gentle and free, and I felt that needed to change. For me, Mark Steinmetz – a photographer who documents youth in America  shaped the way I find joy in everyday scenes. As for Ryan McGinley, I was an intern at his studio when I moved to New York in 2018. I learned from Ryan a sense of adventure and openness. His road-trips informed the way I drove through Florida taking these pictures.

If you had to pick the photograph that, according to you, best represents and communicates the vision of this book, which one would you choose?

Josh Aronson: I’d choose ‘Boy with Orange Juice (Braids)’ because, to me, orange juice is a symbol of Florida life. We prepare and export it here for others everywhere to enjoy. In a way, Tropicana the book is much the same.

We live in times of crisis, where people are constantly exposed to dramatic news on the current COVID-19 pandemic. Can the playful, queer, and beautiful Florida imagery of Tropicana provide relief and serve as a celebration of the ‘good times’? How can celebrating human beauty, diversity, and harmony through photography and other artistic mediums help us not to take those for granted?

Josh Aronson: There is a great Arthur Jafa interview in which he speaks about how images are a way to gain access to experiences. If images are a means of access, then Tropicana is a way for us to connect to the experience of togetherness, and become one with this side of Florida youth culture. I once heard it said that Florida is a local phenomenon that addresses a global concern. If you feel that, through images, you can have some sort of ownership over a place, then Tropicana is your receipt.

Tropicana is available here