Decades After Andy Sweet's Murder, His Iconic South Beach Photos Are Resurrected

Stan Hughes, a tall, thin, straight-faced man with a gray ponytail, shuffles through dozens of boxes lining the shelves of a small storage space. They're filled with memories of his brother-in-law's exuberant life: an old coin collection, semiprecious gemstones and geodes, slot cars. It's dusty in the small unit at Extra Space Storage in North Miami. After all, many of the boxes have been tucked away since the '80s, ever since their owner's life was brutally cut short.

Andy Sweet was a young photographer whose obsession was 1970s Miami Beach — the aging, Jewish, sunburned paradise where he snapped away the days of his youth. But just as his quirky, sun-drenched work began reaching a national audience, he was stabbed to death in his SoBe apartment. He was just 28 years old.

That wasn't the Sweet family's last tragedy. As they endured decades of failed attempts to convict his murderers, they also suffered a second catastrophe: Most of Sweet's original color negatives — a priceless insight into a formative moment in Miami history — were lost by a storage company. All that remained of his legacy were about 100 deteriorating large prints, stashed away under his mother Audrey's bed.

Or so the family thought.

Hughes never met Sweet, who'd died a decade before he met Sweet's sister, Ellen. But by this day on 2006, as he rearranged the storage site, he was well familiar with the family story. So when he noticed a shelf of small gray boxes with flip tops — the type used to store photographs — his eyes widened.

Hughes soon realized he'd discovered an inconceivable treasure: 30 boxes filled with eight-by-eight color test prints.

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Hughes looked closer and noticed they were labeled "Color prints." Curious, he pulled one box down from the shelf and placed it on the floor. This couldn't have been Andy's, could it? He hastily opened the box, and the faded colors of a small square photograph burst through. Though dingy and discolored, they were unmistakably photos of 1970s Miami — dozens of shots of joyful seniors and art deco hotels.

Hughes could barely breathe. "I could tell right away it was his," he says.

Hughes soon realized he'd discovered an inconceivable treasure: Thirty boxes filled with eight-by-eight color test prints Andy had made in preparation for larger final prints. Here were 1,600 images the family never knew existed, each marked on the back with a grease pencil. There were endless portraits of parties and shows, charismatic older people on the beach, and Orthodox Jewish families. They were scratched, stained, and faded, but Hughes, an artist and photographer himself, saw their potential. Absent original color negatives, they were the next best thing.

That discovery marked the start of nearly a decade of work to preserve the work of one of Miami Beach's most important photographers. Earlier this year, after creating a website and Facebook page to showcase the restored work, Sweet's photographs went viral online, sparking new interest in a seminal moment in Miami's history and a talented young artist's incredible story.

As legendary photographer Mary Ellen Mark wrote of Sweet: "He definitely would have gone on to make many more wonderful images and to become a real photographic force."

For Sweet's family, finding those lost photos also brought hope where for so long there had been none.

"I knew we could resurrect this," Hughes says of his thoughts after rediscovering the photos. "It was almost heart-stopping, like, 'My God, he's not gone.'?"

To Ellen Sweet, her younger brother Andy's fascination with the elderly retirees in their neighborhood was anything but cool. She didn't understand why a fun-loving 20-something would want to spend his Saturday nights and New Year's Eves with quirky older people, taking their pictures for fun, when he could be out partying with people his own age or dating girls. "I thought it was weird," she says.

But to the smiling, curly-haired child of Miami Beach, who never left home without a camera, the life and culture of South Beach's Jewish community was both fascinating and sacred.

Their mother, Audrey, had moved to Miami as a girl from Pittsburgh in the 1940s. Her family became well-known after her father, Nat Hankoff, opened the Monte Carlo Hotel and then later the Royal Palm. While away at college at the University of Wisconsin, Audrey met Nelan "Chick" Sweet, who came from a poor Madison family. After college, the young couple moved to Miami Beach, where Chick began working as a lawyer and judge, ultimately becoming president of the Miami Beach Bar Association.

"When Andy was shooting, there was no deliberation and no question," Monroe says. "He was totally working on instinct, with a kind of pure empathy."

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Andy grew up in big house on North Bay Road. He was 14 when he started shooting photographs. One day when his mother was out playing cards, he went to the store to buy paint and painted the maid's room black.

"My mother laughed," Ellen remembers. "She wasn't mad about it. And he used that darkroom until he went to college."

While at Miami Beach High School, Andy always had a camera around his neck. Though black-and-white photos were the order of the day, he loved shooting in color. At the University of South Florida in Tampa, Andy met Gary Monroe, a shaggy-haired fellow photographer from Miami Beach. They bonded over memories of home and of their Jewish roots. In Tampa, where the Jewish population was far smaller than in Miami, they first recognized how unique their hometown's culture really was.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, South Beach had become a refuge for Eastern European Jewish transplants. For its climate, Miami became known as "America's Playground"—a place to "enjoy and live fully," says Monroe, who now lives in DeLand, Florida. Often, they'd meet Holocaust survivors in Lummus Park, recognizable from their tattooed arms.

"It's hard to imagine now, but the average age on Miami Beach back then was 82," Monroe laughs. "Now it's probably 18. Can you imagine Ocean Drive full of people in their 70s or 80s?"

And it was far from the luxury SoBe of today. The art deco hotels were shabby and faded. While Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack hung out north at the Fontainebleau, South Beach was a blue-collar dwelling where Jewish residents lived off social security payments and where a temple dotted every corner.

After college, Andy and Gary went together to the University of Colorado at Boulder for master's degrees. That's where they made plans to document the life of their beloved South Beach after graduation.

"Our early interest in photographing a city we love was like a magnet that kept drawing us back," Sweet told the Miami News in 1981. "We feel this area so much in our blood."

In 1977, they returned home. They vowed to devote the next decade to their "Miami Beach Photographic Project," supporting themselves with freelance commercial photography and teaching. As they began to amass their collection, they received $135,000 in grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor. The money went almost totally toward film, mounting boards, and developing equipment.

Though both photographers aimed to capture their subjects living life, they took different approaches. Monroe worked on a strict schedule and shot only in black and white. Sweet was a free spirit who went out to take his color photos whenever the mood struck. Monroe had a darkroom in his house. Sweet had an arrangement with a photography studio that specialized in bar mitzvahs and weddings, where he'd help run Saturday-night parties in exchange for using their color darkroom.

Colors were Sweet's passion — the unmistakable blues of the Miami sky and water, the greens and purples of clothing and costumes.

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"We had very different working attitudes and lifestyles," Monroe says. "I'd get up at 6:30; he'd get up at 11:30. I have a very strong work ethic. He had more of a life. He'd photograph when he wanted to."

Colors were Sweet's passion — the unmistakable blues of the Miami sky and water, the greens and purples of clothing and costumes, the red of a shag carpet or a leather couch. He captured them with the black Hasselblad cameras that weighed down his shoulders.

When nationally famed photographer Mary Ellen Mark came to town, she asked the young Sweet to show her around town. She fell for his style, praising his "strong, humorous, and beautiful images." She'd later write that his body of work was "unprecedented for someone so young."

Sweet's biggest inspiration was Diane Arbus, a New York photographer known for her depictions of marginalized people — or as she herself called them, the "freaks." Like Arbus, Sweet liked to shoot images driven wholly by his subjects.

"When Andy was shooting, there was no deliberation and no question," Monroe says. "He was totally working on instinct, with a kind of pure empathy."

By the early '80s, Monroe and Sweet sensed South Beach was changing and vowed to make a book of their best images.

Monroe, though, would have to finish that project alone.

On any given weekend night in the South Beach of the late '70s, there were some 100 Jewish parties up and down Ocean Drive. But by the early '80s, the parties had begun dwindling, replaced by a different type of revelry.

A November 1981 Time magazine cover summed up the change: A map of South Florida was emblazoned with the words "Paradise Lost." The cocaine trade had made Miami the headquarters of a $20 billion annual business led by the "cocaine cowboys" of Colombia's Medellin cartel. Around the same time, Fidel Castro had opened the Cuban port at Mariel, 30 miles west of Havana, to residents who wanted to escape. The ensuing Mariel Boatlift saw more than 100,000 Cuban exiles relocate to South Florida in 1980. And one month into the boatlift, one of the bloodiest race riots in U.S. history broke out after an all-white jury acquitted four white police officers in the beating death of a black ex-Marine, claiming 18 lives. By the early '80s, Miami was one of the murder capitals of the world, and Andy Sweet would soon become one of the casualties.

As Sweet felt his neighborhood fall to drugs and crime, he decided to buy a burglar alarm for his apartment near Collins Avenue on 30th Street. On October 16, 1982, two men joked with Sweet as they installed the new system. Just as they finished and headed out to leave, two guys pushed their way in. The men who'd installed the alarm would later say they heard Sweet mutter "Hey! Hey! Hey!" to the guys. But the scene seemed calm enough, so they left.

The next day — a Sunday — Andy was late to a job. He was supposed to photograph the wedding of a family friend, but he was nowhere to be found. Finally, Gary, who lived in the same building with his wife, went to Sweet's apartment to check in.

"Andy wanted to live among the people he was photographing," Monroe says. "But then Miami really started to change, and that change is what ended up killing him."

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Inside, he found a shocking scene: His best friend had been stabbed 29 times with a big kitchen knife and a flat-blade screwdriver. His apartment was ransacked and drenched in blood, and his body was covered with a mattress. The murderers hadn't touched his expensive cameras.

When Chick learned of his son's killing, he could barely speak. He just repeated "Why?" over and over, Ellen remembers.

"Andy wanted to live among the people he was photographing," Monroe says. "But then Miami really started to change, and that change is what ended up killing him."

While police searched for the killers, the city mourned. His parents and sisters were inconsolable. More than 500 people showed up for Sweet's funeral at Temple Emanu-El on the beach. On December 5, the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine's cover story was "Andy Sweet: A Portrait," which called him "an institution."

"His photos imply a past and suggest a future," wrote Madeleine Blais. "And that is why the final scene is such an injustice and such a slander. It says nothing true about the person who died, whose work was curious and gentle and winking and full of humor."

Miami Beach Police soon arrested Jesus Ortiz, 31, a drifter from Austin, Texas, and John Taylor, 24, a Miami native, alleging they killed Sweet in an apparent drug rip-off. The intruders were on the hunt for cocaine, police said. Taylor was caught while in jail for burglary, wearing Sweet's pants. At separate trials, the men blamed each other.

Ortiz, whose fingerprints were found on a beer bottle and a pack of cigarettes inside the bedroom, testified that he went to the apartment to buy cocaine but left after watching TV for 15 minutes. Lacking modern DNA evidence, jurors felt the circumstantial evidence wasn't enough to convict him. They found him not guilty, acquitting him in 1983.

Taylor, meanwhile, was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison. But in 1998, an appeals court overturned the conviction. He later pleaded guilty and agreed to a 25-year prison term. He was released in 2002.

(A third suspect was later indicted in 1999 following new DNA technology that revealed an additional set of fingerprints. But after 12 years in state psychiatric facilities, Marko Dukanovic, a homeless drifter, was released.)

To the family, the judicial process seemed pitiful. Sweet's own father, a municipal court judge, was disillusioned and refused to practice law again, Ellen says.

"He had completely lost faith," she says. "He had no respect for a jury system that could allow these guys to get off. It was just so horrible."

As the case worked its way through court, friends urged the Sweets to preserve their son's artwork. But the family was too devastated. Thousands of negatives, contact sheets, and prints sat neglected in a spare bedroom until 1994, when the family finally moved the negatives to an art storage facility. For two years, they paid the $25-per-month fee, until they suddenly stopped getting billed.

After repeated inquiries, they received a letter in July 1996, stating the archive was "unable to locate the five cartons'' of Sweet's negatives. They were offered $1 per box.

They sued and later won a much larger payment, but the damage had been done. Without those boxes, only about 100 of the thousands of photos Sweet had taken remained. Six hundred contact sheets, with 12 or so small photo squares each, showed the copious amount of photos Sweet had taken in his short life — but photos couldn't be printed from those.

"It was like he died all over again," Ellen says. "It was a nightmare."

Stan Hughes sits in front of a large Mac screen in a small sunroom in his Miami Shores home. His collection of vintage film reels is stacked on shelves around the room, and the desk is cluttered with family photos. He moves his mouse over the deep and unmistakable blue of a Miami sky and stares intently, pondering.

Is it blue enough? he wonders. Too blue?

Finding the box full of Sweet's forgotten prints was a miracle, but it also created a technical and ethical challenge for Hughes: How to restore their lost glory without altering Sweet's original vision.

After he discovered the 30 boxes of faded test prints, he and Ellen Sweet scanned each of the 1,600 prints into digital format. Then Hughes got to work.

As an artist himself, he had dabbled in photography over the years. The Pahokee native studied painting and printmaking at the University of Florida before moving to Chicago. He even taught Photoshop at the Art Institute of Chicago for three years, though his real specialty was animation. He began to pinpoint which of Sweet's photos to begin correcting to return to their originals, trying to keep Monroe's advice pulsing through his mind like a mantra: "Think beach-ball hues." Hughes consulted the few existing large prints Sweet made while he was alive, but the colors were mostly too faded to help. He also used the photographs published in Miami Beach, a book of Monroe and Sweet's work printed in 1989.

"I try to look and see what he was thinking," Hughes says. "If I try to get the same range of tones, I'm probably getting what he was thinking. It definitely gets you in the ballpark, but you want it to be as perfect as possible."

A few years after he started resurrecting the photos, he showed them to Monroe. He began to cry.

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Since 2006, Hughes, a decorative artist, has largely set his own artwork to the side to focus on preserving Sweet's legacy. A few years after he started resurrecting the photos, he showed them to Monroe. He began to cry. "It's not lost," Monroe said.

That was all Hughes needed to keep going. It would take years more for his work to inspire a renaissance in Sweet's photography, though. He thought he'd be done in five years, but almost a decade later, he has completed just 450 of the 1,600 photos. One photo can easily take him 12 hours to complete.

To promote the work, Hughes and Ellen founded the Andy Sweet Photo Legacy in 2010. Then the family connected with sculptor and artist Lisa Stone, who offered to sell prints of Sweet's rediscovered photos out of her home in Ormond Beach for $800 each. She calls the images "enchanting, surprising, and beautiful."

"A sense of wonder, of not knowing fully, seems to be what is so captivating about them," she says. "The images compel one to want to understand the people in the photographs, and his photographs carry a weight of history and humanity."

But the project really took off earlier this year when the pair created a website and Facebook for the Andy Sweet Photo Legacy, where they began showcasing the completed photos. In June, Curbed published a sampling of the photos. Then, the Washington Post took note with a lengthy piece in the photography section.

Thousands visited the sites, with emails pouring in about the beauty and nostalgia the photos elicited. In May, after Ellen posted a photo of a woman in a brown velour jumpsuit with a rust-brown wig, a yellow umbrella, and thick white sunglasses, a man named Bill Weiss called her. The image was of his grandmother, and the reason she was wearing the wig was because she had cancer, he said. "She was out there being happy and living," Ellen recalls.

Those kinds of moments encourage Ellen to continue promoting her little brother's work, to get it in galleries and museums, and maybe even to get another book published. She only wishes her parents were still alive to see their son's work finally get recognition. Chick died in 2008, Audrey in 2013.

Like their photographer, it's safe to say that most of Andy Sweet's subjects are also no longer living. And many of his favorite South Beach landmarks have been replaced with flashier upgrades. Yet Andy Sweet's photographs continue to convey a pure and remarkable spirit of aliveness. And that, Monroe says, was exactly the point.

"Photographers are always talking about that perfect moment or the golden hour, but that was so irrelevant to Andy," Monroe says.

"For him, it was really just about life."

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Jessica Weiss
Contact: Jessica Weiss