The Enduring Legacy of Spring Break Through the Lens of Photographer Keith McManus

A photo from ‘Spring Break: Rite of Passage’
A photo from ‘Spring Break: Rite of Passage’ | © Keith McManus

Deputy Editorial Director, North America

Dive into a brief history of spring break in the United States, and witness the cultural phenomenon through the eyes of documentary photographer Keith McManus, who captured spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida, annually from 1982 to 1993.

One of countless beach scenes McManus captured over an 11-year period

The wild, substance-doused, fleshy legacy of spring break is legendary in the United States. Its enduring attraction is evident in long-standing pop-culture mythologies, documented in films like 1983’s Spring Break and 2013’s Spring Breakers, as well as raucous television shows, including MTV’s (formerly) annual trip to oceanside locations, where bikini contests were hosted alongside music-video countdowns. Visions of tequila shots and pools packed with hard-bodied revelers are forever a part of American lore, even if the realities of what spring break is, and where it happens, have changed over time.

This is the cover photograph of Keith McManus’s photography book ‘Spring Break: Rite of Passage’

Though humankind has been celebrating spring with rituals and alcohol for thousands of years (the Greeks and Romans welcomed the rejuvenating season of the god of wine – Dionysus and Bacchus, respectively – way back in ancient times), the concept of spring break as we know it began around 1928, when the first Olympic-size swimming pool was built in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Top athletes flocked to the gargantuan pool to compete while on break from classes over the next decade, and their less athletically inclined college buddies sometimes followed. Time magazine documented the phenomenon in a 1959 article titled “Beer & the Beach,” and in 1960, Where the Boys Are – a musical film with limbo contests and beach make-outs set in Fort Lauderdale, starring a bronzed George Hamilton – cemented the idea of booze, sun and fun in American psyches. By the ’80s, Fort Lauderdale residents were partied out, and wet-T-shirt-contest-seeking twenty-somethings moved on to terrorize Daytona Beach, Mexico and the Caribbean, among other places. Spring break today generally occurs between the beginning of March and Easter Sunday, providing a neat juxtaposition of young people enjoying excessive indulgence while a solid chunk of the rest of the country is fasting or abstaining for Lent.

Daytona Beach was a top destination for spring breakers in the 1980s and ’90s

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Keith McManus found himself at the center of spring-break madness in Daytona Beach, Florida, back in the ’80s. For 11 years, his artistic curiosity drove him to return to the tropical hotspot to document what he calls a “modern cultural tradition.” “It occurred to me that there really weren’t any rite-of-passage ceremonies that were codified in our culture,” says McManus, whose work often involves years-long projects. McManus’s photos stayed dormant for decades, until he finally published them in a book, Spring Break: Rite of Passage, in 2009.

As McManus notes, most of the subjects in his photos could be grandparents by now

McManus visited Daytona Beach while he was a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology; he never experienced spring break when he himself was in school. He wandered the popular hotels and beaches with a couple of cameras hanging around his neck – the more obvious he was about what he was doing, the more invisible he felt he became to the partiers around him. “[The spring breakers] came to Daytona for a week with limited budgets, and they barely ate and drank a lot and got a sunburn,” McManus says. “On the surface there was nothing particularly profound about what they did, but it was a thing to witness and watch youth behavior in the 20th century. I don’t know if it was an obsession of mine, but visually as a documentary photographer it was a kind of priceless time in history. And I had good access.”

Revelers take their ease as they wait for the sun to go down

Culture Trip asked McManus to revisit some of his photographs from that time period and talk about what he really saw through his lens, and the depth of what he captured goes far beyond the good times. “Mostly the kids in these pictures could be grandparents now,” McManus says, “so I often wonder, What the heck happened to all these people? You know, where are they?”

Spring breakers dance in unison to the instructions of a hotel event coordinator

“There’s one photograph from the first year that got me thinking about the idea and sent me back again. It’s a photograph of a bikini contest; there’s a group of young women in bikinis on left, and on right there’s an empty stage. That photo I always felt was symbolic of the way women are treated. All the events were, if it was about women it was how women looked, and if it was about men it was what they were able to do. There was that dividing line between the two sexes, about how they behaved, and what they were expected to do and perform.” –Keith McManus | © Keith McManus

“There’s a lot of visual metaphors in that picture. I always thought about the execution of Joan of Arc. It’s an allegorical photograph.” –Keith McManus
“It might be romantic, but it’s a dark kind of photograph too. I like it because it has two surfaces: it has this beautiful light and look to it, but there’s something about it that’s also very dark.” –Keith McManus
“I took that picture and I’m thinking, How can I be so fortunate as to have a photograph that’s kind of descriptive of men watching women paraded by? They’re judging the women and it’s like a commodity.” –Keith McManus
“That’s kind of the photograph of being a man. That boom box is also kind of walking toward him on shoes. It’s kind of a funny photograph.” –Keith McManus
“Look at the gesture on the woman — she has her hands outreached. It’s like an offering of herself and all the men are kind of lined up and smiling. It’s again about the relationship between men and women, a nice encapsulation of that moment.” –Keith McManus

To celebrate the arrival of spring, Culture Trip explores themes of revolution, rebirth and renewal across the world.

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