Although Miami might be best known for its Art Deco buildings, did you know its famous beach is now home to 30 unique lifeguard towers dotted along the sand, designed by architect William Lane? New York photographer Tommy Kwak has been on a mission to document each one, and now he's bringing his 'tropical deco' series together for a new book.
When Hurricane Andrew hurled itself across South Florida in the early 1990s, the destruction it left in its wake was immense. Amongst the devastation, it completely wiped out Miami Beach's original lifeguard towers. It was in 2015 that the City of Miami began constructing 35 new timber structures to safeguard its beaches. Designed by William Lane, the rainbow-coloured towers are built in batches and brought out to their new home on the sand when complete. The last five are currently in production, adding to the existing lineup that has become iconic and is frequently documented by Instagrammers worldwide.
New York City-based photographer Tommy Kwak shares their fascination. He has been photographing the candy-coloured lifeguard towers on Miami Beach since 2019, slowly making his way along the 8.5-mile stretch of sand to document them all. His goal was to create a catalogue of these compelling structures to highlight the unique traits of each tower. Looking through his images, you can see how he transforms these towers into more graphic forms, bringing a fresh perspective to what have become popular public works of art.
"I love being near the water, and most of my photography has some water element in them, whether traditional seascapes or more abstract interpretations of waves," Tommy tells Creative Boom. "In addition, I love bright, vibrant colours, which is another part of my photography. And lastly, I tend to be drawn to isolated, solitary forms, whether it's a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, a lonely tree, or in this case, a lifeguard tower set against the backdrop of water. So, when I first came upon the Miami Beach towers a few years ago, these three things came together for me and drew me in."
Tommy didn't anticipate how popular his series would become, attracting likes, sales and press coverage worldwide. "Many people comment on the clean compositions and framing and the bright colours, which seem to bring a lot of joy, so I'm really happy about that," he explains. "Initially, they received a lot of attention on Instagram. Then collectors started to acquire prints and later NFTs of the towers."
To add to his success, Tommy is bringing together the photographs in a new book, Lifeguard Towers: Miami, currently seeking support on Kickstarter. Published by Blurring Books and featuring an introduction by New Yorker editor Karen Quinn, the hardcover book will include 42 photographs and will go on sale in time for Christmas. "If successfully funded, it will help bring the images to a wider audience in a more intimate form," he says.
Tommy Kwak began exploring photography in 2006 when he moved to New York City from Chicago. "I was mostly doing street and documentary type photography, really just carrying my camera with me everywhere," he explains. In 2008, when he visited Iceland – the first of 12 trips there – he shifted focus to landscape and nature photography. Later on, he discovered the lifeguard towers of Miami Beach, sparking a series that has taken three years to complete. "I'm a huge fan of Miami. I love the beach and warm waters, the amazing food, and the relaxed atmosphere. Plus, it's just a short three-hour plane ride from NYC, so it's great to escape to during the winters."
Does Tommy have a favourite tower? "I love the 1st Street, 8th Street, and 100 towers because, in those photographs, I achieved what I was going for, which was a very reduced sky and water backdrop, so the electric colour palette and eccentric shapes of the towers stood out, turning them into graphic forms."