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Richard McCabe’s ‘Perdido’: Journey Through a Dystopian Paradise

By Dakota Parks for Inweekly

Richard McCabe doesn’t just photograph places. He tries to transport you to them, capturing memories, documenting decaying architecture and preserving the gritty reality and juxtaposed beauty of the South.

For the better part of a decade, McCabe has traveled the backroads of America photographing roadside ruins and documenting vanishing vernacular signage and Southern architecture in his ongoing project “Roadside Ruins” and his 2018 book “Land Star.” Building off these collections, his latest work “Peridido,” now on display at Pensacola Museum of Art until early next year, pays homage to the Gulf Coast.

McCabe, a New Orleans based curator and photographer, began capturing images for the project in fall 2019, as his familial ties and connection to the region began to slip away. The title of the exhibition, “Perdido,” is taken from the Spanish and Portuguese word for “lost.” Amid a sense of loss, grief and life transition, McCabe began documenting the forgotten and missing parts of the Gulf Coast alongside emblems of the modern tourist economy.

“My mom was in her 90s, and she was dying after fighting cancer for 15 years,” McCabe said. “I was really thinking about how my life was going to change when my mom was gone, because she was my connection to Pensacola. I haven’t lived in Pensacola since 1996, but I visited her once a month. I took one of the first images of the project on Pensacola Beach on Christmas morning in 2019. It was the last Christmas with my mom, before the world really changed with her passing away in January 2020 and the pandemic shortly after.”

McCabe initially set out to photograph memories from his childhood, such as the site of the Five Flags Inn on Pensacola Beach—where his family spent time. It was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, leaving only palm trees in its wake. As he photographed more of the region, the project morphed into a mediation of time—watching the Gulf Coast change as the years passed and using architecture as a signifier of the economic conditions of the city.

“I love the idea of ‘Perdido’ meaning lost, because that’s how I feel about my relationship to the region,” McCabe said. “I go back there now, and I don’t recognize Pensacola or Perdido. There is a sharp dichotomy between the East side of town—Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach growing and developing so fast and becoming super wealthy—whereas the West side of Pensacola is stuck in time, deteriorating, even becoming poorer if you ask people that live there.”

The exhibition captures this stark wealth divide, highlighting gentrification and contrasting the old and lost Florida with the new through film photographs, lo-fi projections, found objects and paintings. McCabe juxtaposes architecture of beach condominiums and iconic Pensacola landmarks like the UFO house and the Pensacola Beach sign with defunct businesses, abandoned buildings, strip clubs, the now torn-down Confederate monument and other forgotten places to create the feeling of what McCabe calls a dystopian paradise.

“I was very conscious to balance the old and new while trying to make the current interesting, because a lot of contemporary architecture is brutalist and sterile,” McCabe said. “For example, the projections in the light boxes in the exhibit combine multiple images of condos to kind of form one collage image. It creates this literal sprawl on the wall, and I think it deconstructs the photographic process and makes this otherwise boring architecture visually interesting.”

Throughout “Perdido,” McCabe deconstructs the process of photography down to shapes, grids, repetition and scale by displaying abstract paintings next to collage projections, light boxes showing repetitive film shots, color studies captured using a television and Fuji Instax prints and a wall of Polaroid photographs still in their film cases, focused on architecture and snapshots of so-called paradise.

“The work all builds on itself,” McCabe explained. “It starts with documentary style photography using antiquated AV equipment to project the images overhead, and as you walk through the exhibit it deconstructs through the Polaroids and color series grids. The color series to me is kind of anti-photography in a way; it’s using photography to play against the whole aesthetic of reproducing reality. But there is still a warmth and beauty to them like you’re looking across the water on a beach.”

Similarly, McCabe’s images of abandoned and forgotten places balance a stark reality with a touch of warmth and beauty. Toward the end of photographing “Perdido,” McCabe found inspiration in the images captured by Walker Evans for Karl Bickel’s book “The Mangrove Coast.” Tasked with photographing the natural beauty of the Sunshine State, Evans instead found inspiration in the lesser known gritty, yet beautiful parts—trailer parks, circus animals, crowded streets and employees working.

“I hadn’t read the book until after I photographed the series, but I wanted my photographs to also reflect that,” McCabe said. “I wanted to capture what people might not think about when they first think of Pensacola. The city is not just Blue Angels and fun in the sun. In a way, my images are also a form of historical preservation, documenting the past, because often the buildings are bulldozed or destroyed by a storm the next time I see them.”

Ultimately, “Perdido” goes beyond a visual testament to the shifting landscape of the Gulf Coast. Through McCabe’s lens, viewers witness a profound beauty in the often-overlooked corners of the city, where the images intertwine bittersweet feelings of sentimentality for the past with a longing for stability in the present.

“I hope viewers really get to experience the atmosphere of place, feeling transported somewhere else, maybe in the familiar and the unfamiliar,” McCabe said. “Capturing these photos was a healing process for me, and I hope that comes through—the loneliness and emotions of place and my emotions come through in the art.”

Perdido: Work by Richard McCabe

WHAT: An exhibition featuring film photographs, projections, found objects and paintings

WHEN: On display now through Friday, Jan. 20

WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St. DETAILS:


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