Visual Arts

Emmy-nominated photographer draws inspiration from vintage South Florida

A photograph from Jonathan Brooks' Skulls Collection featuring a peaceful beach contrasted with dark figure holding a skull.
A photograph from Jonathan Brooks' Skulls Collection featuring a peaceful beach contrasted with dark figure holding a skull.

For Jonathan Brooks, art is a matter of life and death. Filled with juxtapositions, opposites, and stark contrasts of all kinds, his work is nowhere near ordinary ― instead, it is otherworldly, both eerie and evocative. It's reminiscent of vintage South Florida, with a tinge of the supernatural.

"I love black and white ― most of my work is about mortality, life and death, the different extremes, beauty and ugly together," he said.

Brooks, 52, graduated from the University of Miami in 1994 after studying advertising, fine art photography and marketing. About five years ago, after his father died, he began to concentrate on photography more seriously. He was fixated on the juxtaposition of life, death, and mortality, which shines through in his work to this day.

"I grew up with "The Twilight Zone," "Creature Feature," MTV music videos, and Vogue magazine," Brooks said. "They're all influences."

Brooks is also heavily influenced by his hometown of Miami. The city makes its way into much of his work in some form or another.

"I'm surrounded by a South Florida environment," he said. "Where I live is prominent in what I do."

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"Ilo" by Jonathan Brooks was inspired by the wildlife in South Florida. Jonathan Brooks

"Whether it's the streets of Miami or the environment and wildlife, it's all very prominent in my work," Brooks said of the impact South Florida has had on his photography.

Like much of Miami, Brooks has Cuban roots. His father is from Wisconsin and his mother is from Cuba, and Brooks cites the island as another influence that inspires his art. He wrote a book called "The True Cuba," which was funded on Kickstarter in 2014, in response to the controversy surrounding the banning of "Vamos a Cuba" from public school libraries.

"Growing up in South Florida, I have seen what has happened in Cuba since my mom came in 1961," he said.

The book, which was dedicated to his grandmother and great aunt, was written with hopes of informing people who don't know the truth about Cuba.

Brooks' art was recently featured in the Emmy nominated short film about the National Endowment for the Arts. His photograph "2 Pink Flamingos & A Thunderbird" was a finalist in One Eyeland World's Top 10 Fashion Photographers Contest 2018. The picture is uniquely vibrant compared to Brooks' other pieces, but it still conveys the mysterious vintage Miami feel that prevails in much of his work.

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"2 Pink Flamingos & A Thunderbird," by Jonathan Brooks, was recently a finalist in the One Eyeland World Top Photographers Contest 2018. Jonathan Brooks

"Lately I've been trying to be more colorful," he said. His work is still eccentric, but the intention seems to be coming from a different place. "Skulls aren't just about death, they are about life and rebirth," he said.

"With the flowers, I'm trying to be more happy and colorful," Brooks said. "Some of the sunflowers with skulls, there's the juxtaposition of death and beauty in there, too."

Brooks' work is set to be featured in "Uncle Drew," starring Kyrie Irving and Tiffany Haddish. It's not the first time his art appears in a major film ― his photography was also used in the 2016 comedy "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates." His Skull series was used in the popular TV series "The Vampire Diaries."

"I got a lot of attention with the skull series, and people were into it," he said. "These opportunities help expose my work."

Brooks sells his work on Minted.com, and his image "Dreams" is available at West Elm. The mysterious picture, which features a sharp contrast between a soft white cloud and a dark, ominous one, was inspired by Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams."

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"Dreams," a mystical photograph taken by Jonathan Brooks, was inspired by the Fleetwood Mac song and is currently being sold at West Elm. Jonathan Brooks

"I've always been heavily into music," Brooks said. "There are certain songs that remind me of growing up in Florida, and I sometimes interpret those songs through my images."

Between his Cuban roots, love for anything botanical, and emphasis on surreal qualities in his work, Brooks is truly a product of his surroundings. A South Florida man at heart, he has succeeded at incorporating bits and pieces of Miami's rich and eclectic atmosphere into his art.

"There's always something that's a throwback to South Florida."

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