If you came to Art Basel and Seth Browarnik didn't snap a photo of you, were you even here? Ocean Drive catches up with the man who for 16 years has documented the wild cast that brings the money, the art and the fun to Miami in December.
Clockwise from top left: Kehinde Wiley and Swizz Beatz; Shepard Fairey; Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas; Vuk Vidor; Steve Martin; Martha Stewart and Marty Taplin; Takashi Murakami; Otisha D. Ferguson; Jeremy Scott and Miley Cyrus; Lenny Kravitz and Demi Moore; Lou Reed.
If Miami nightlife has a memory, some sort of central nervous system that catches and stores all the nights lost to one tequila shot too many, it is Seth Browarnik’s computer. It’s quite an impressive machine: two rectangular monitors side by side ready to conjure up any image that comes to its master’s mind.
“Look,” Browarnik says, swiveling around in an office chair inside his South Beach apartment. “We can do a search of Kim Kardashian and—“ he jabs the return key and points to the screen, where over 4,000 images await. She might be his most photographed subject ever. Or maybe Paris Hilton? It’s hard to say. There have been so, so many photos snapped over Browarnik’s 20-year career of documenting—that’s the word he prefers: documenting—Miami in its various stages of nightlife, culture and growth. It’s fun for him to sit down at the computer and jump back into it all, remembering the stories his crowded mind evicted years ago. It must be nice to have the luxury of such a device.
This all started when Browarnik was an Ocean Drive intern, armed only with an unimpressive digital camera he barely knew how to use. He’s still got the photos from his first night on the job in 1998, which happened to occur during a celebrity-packed party at the infamous South Beach club Liquid. He still has that very first shot of Dennis Rodman on file.
“I was hooked right away,” he says, clicking through photos from that night.
It’s all too easy to get sidetracked at Browarnik’s computer, but we are here today to talk Art Basel, which he has been shooting since the very first iteration in 2002.
“Nobody in Miami knew what Art Basel was. It wasn’t about locals as much as the art world coming down to Miami,” he remembers. If you lived outside the 23 blocks surrounding the Miami Beach Convention Center, you may not have even known Art Basel was happening. Those early years were special to Browarnik. The cast of characters was tight. Intimate. That’s why he loves this one particular shot of Sam Keller, the former director of Art Basel Miami Beach and the man largely responsible for all this madness we’ve come to know in the first week of December.
Amanda Lepore and David LaChapelle
In the photo, Keller is descending the stairs of the Florida Room during Le Baron, the ultimate Art Basel party. This was in 2009, so it would have been right after he resigned from his position as director. “This is probably 6 in the morning and he’s just kind of in a daze,” Browarnik says. “This was his moment to take it all in and realize: It’s over.”
There is no busier week than Basel for Browarnik and his company, World Red Eye. They are shooting over 300 events. Browarnik himself bounces around via a scooter he only uses for Basel week. He actually fell off in 2014, broke his wrist, and still managed to finish out the day, quite literally running on adrenaline.
But the hustle pays off, and so does being in the right place at the right time. In 2002, Browarnik was there to capture Karl Lagerfeld’s return to Miami for the first time since his friend Gianni Versace was killed. “He told me that he was freaked out. He comes in with a trash bag over his head and like 10 security guys huddling around him.”
In 2003, he was the only photographer present when Muhammad Ali and Chris Rock shared a quick laugh backstage at the Basel launch party of Ali’s Taschen book. The next year, he found himself snapping late-night shots of Benedikt Taschen, the famous publisher himself, as he and his wife enjoyed a skinny-dip in the Delano’s pool, flopping around like happy babies while photographer Terry Richardson egged them on.
Browarnik lives for Basel moments like that, when things get—for lack of a better word—weird.
No one could have guessed how big Art Basel Miami Beach would become—not even Browarnik. “I knew nothing at that time,” he admits of his first few years shooting the event. But today he can look back and trace the rise of Miami culture right alongside Art Basel’s ascension. Without it, he says, so much of this city might have never been. The Pérez Art Museum? Wynwood? The Design District? Who knows. In an alternative reality without Basel, they might not exist.
Andre Saraiva and Joe Weinberger
“Miami grew from Basel,” Browarnik says. You can see so much of the city from his office on the 26th floor—from Downtown to South Beach. He was born and raised here. In fact, his grandfather helped build the old New Yorker Hotel on Miami Beach in the ’30s, an art deco gem back in its day. “It was right there,” Browarnik says, pointing to the northeast and pulling up his blinds to reveal a sunset so pretty it hurts. Oh, how this city has grown since then.
Browarnik agrees: “Basel was the spark that ignited everything.”
Photography by Seth Browarnik