Naomi Harris, Haddon Hall

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 in collaboration between MASA and Void (here). Hardcover (20.5 x 27 cm), 176 pages, with 78 color images, and a postcard. Includes an essay by the artist. Cover design and typography by Void. In an edition of 1250 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Haddon Hall by the Canadian photographer Naomi Harris is a striking photobook that captures the joyful, vulnerable, and occasionally gloomy moments of old age. Her project started in the late 1990s when Harris was in Miami, where she originally planned to photograph Holocaust survivors. As she was visiting community centers and synagogues in search of her subjects, she stumbled upon the Haddon Hall hotel, a place that offered seniors a place to live at a relatively reasonable price. She became fascinated by the community living in the hotel year-round, as they flew south to escape the harsh cold of the northeast, and she ultimately spent two and a half years photographing the “snowbirds” and their daily routines. She helped them with buying groceries, played bingo, took them to their medical appointments and beauty salons, and as a fellow resident, was also able to capture some more intimate moments. “Through trust and friendship, the residents of Haddon Hall accepted me into their lives.”

Some twenty years later, the series has now published in a photobook, simply titled Haddon Hall. In the introduction to the book, Harris notes that as she edited photographs two decades later, her approach and vision have changed. Everyone she photographed has long since died, and Harris herself has started taking care of her aging parents. This book, she writes, “is an ode not only to the forgotten men and women of South Beach, Florida, but also to my parents, and to a youth that is rapidly becoming more and more distant.” 

As a photobook, Haddon Hall is beautifully produced, and its design is executed with elegance. The pages are hosted between two cardboard endpieces, with an exposed spine painted in green featuring the book title placed vertically. The cover doesn’t reveal much of the photobook’s content: an illustration of a ladder going into water appears in the left top corner, while the title and the artist’s name appear in the center. The book has a consistent and simple layout, with all images shown full bleed, with one or two per spread. There are no captions, pages numbers, or any other design elements, immersing us into an uninterrupted visual flow. 

The end papers feature star shaped yellow figures against white background, while the first few spreads depict the shimmering blue water of a swimming pool, and together they set a cheerful and happy mood for the upcoming visual narrative. The story begins with a small photograph showing a large group of people posing by the hotel swimming pool, and a postcard featuring the front of the hotel, and stamped in 1943, is also included in the book.  “Where living is a pleasure” reads the quote on the next spread in the lower right corner. 

Harris’s bright saturated colors, unexpected framing, and striking close ups make her photographs stand out. A full spread photograph of a woman wearing a white swimming cap opens the visual flow; she floats with her eyes closed in the swimming pool, with the blue in her swimsuit matching the water. This is followed by an image of another woman in a bikini as she leans forward, forcing us to notice her aging body as well as her manicured nails and neatly arranged hair. And in the next picture, three women are having a conversation while one of them is gently drying the hair of her friend. These are the kind of daily moments that make up the life of Haddon Hall’s residents. 

The visual narrative of this photobook unfolds in an intimate and tender way. A full bleed image captures a woman brushing her teeth, her face taking up most of the frame as she looks straight into the camera. In another close up shot, a woman has a distrustful look as she lifts red dumbbells. Harris always keeps us in a tight space with her photographs, bringing us in quite close to the residents. She boldly puts forward their aging bodies, with their dry skin and deep wrinkles. 

As we move through the book, there are images of people dancing, playing bingo, spending time by the pool or ocean, eating their meals, and overall enjoying their lives with an easy smile. One photograph captures an elegantly dressed up couple in a dance move, and a few pages later, a portrait of a woman takes up most of the frame, her lipstick matching her purple outfit; the top of her head is cropped, taking our gaze to the cigarette she is holding and her ridiculously long fingernails. This community of elderly people seems to be having a really good time.

At the end of the book, Harris also shares additional personal details about some of the people she met at the Haddon Hall. Sam – in the photograph he is shown eating cornflakes for breakfast – had lost his first wife and child at Auschwitz; he usually kept to himself. Marie and Mary travel to the South together every winter from Canada; they were really into fashion and attended all the dance events. Their stories, and those of many others, live on through this project. 

Shot with respect, care, and an eye for subtle humor, the range of images in Haddon Hall tells an engagingly intimate story. In many ways, Harris’s photographs document the last days of that epoch. Haddon Hall went on to change owners a couple of times, and has been recently transformed into a fancy hotel catering to gay visitors. As a photobook, Haddon Hall is beautifully produced, thoughtful and elegant throughout. It captures the realities of aging, while also looking for its heartwarming moments of joy and happiness.

Collector’s POV: Naomi Harris does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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