AL KAPLAN, 67
Al Kaplan | Quirky North Miami gadfly, professional photographer
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
It was easy to mistake Al Kaplan for a species of city hall habitue familiar to most South Florida municipalities: the schmoozy, slightly off-kilter gadfly who never misses a council meeting.
It probably had something to do with his mop of hair -- and his stuffed monkey.
But North Miami insiders knew better. Kaplan, a professional photographer, researched issues as carefully as did elected officials. He understood their implications and posed cogent questions.
``He would love to give the impression that he was nuts, but he wasn't,'' said Scott Galvin, a longtime City Council member. ``He was very studied in local politics. He was very involved.''
Kaplan and his toy sidekick, Monkette, will henceforth be notable by their absence; a smoker, Kaplan died Dec. 29 from complications of a recent heart attack, said daughter Elena Kaplan, of Atlanta.
Born Alan Kaplan on Nov. 9, 1942, he was 67. He was buried in a New Bedford, Mass., cemetery alongside generations of ancestors.
A North Miami resident since his teens -- with a brief Boston detour -- Kaplan ran unsuccessfully for the City Council in 1989 and served on civic boards.
Indisputably eccentric, the tall, rangy Kaplan loved the water and once aspired to be a fishing guide. But after getting his first camera as a bar mitzvah present, he headed toward a photography career, said son Jonathan Kaplan.
Kaplan is best known for pictures of '60s rock stars, politicians, North Miami events -- and himself. A prolific self-portraitist, Kaplan hosted a blog called email@example.com, and was respected on photo-industry websites.
In 2008, he had his proverbial ``15 minutes of fame,'' as he explained on his blog.
``Amazing. [Photographer] James Mitchell gets the idea of sticking my ugly face on a T-shirt, complete with a cigarette dangling from my lips, posts the thing on an Internet Leica Photography forum, and suddenly orders are coming from as far away as Australia!''
``Al was a polarizing guy in some ways,'' Josh Root wrote on photo.net after Kaplan's death. ``I enjoyed many of his images/thoughts and also butted heads with him in a couple different instances . . . But it is hard to argue that he wasn't a very interesting fellow . . . and a skilled photographer.''
Al Kaplan described himself thusly on his blog:
``Al's art background includes a few years at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, MA. He majored in anthropology at Miami Dade College and later taught photography there. He spent several years working for various publications in the Miami area [and] used his contacts . . . to pick up a variety of long-term clients, including Barry University, the city of North Miami, the Jamaican Tourist Development Board and Congressman William Lehman.''
His interests, he wrote, ``range from light tackle fishing to politics. He's skilled in black & white traditional darkroom techniques and equally at home with a 4x5 commercial view camera as he is with his favorite 35mm Leicas.''
Elena, a lawyer, said her father was never without a camera.
``It was normal that he was always taking pictures of us,'' she said of herself and Jonathan, a Harvard University doctoral student.
Thrice married, Kaplan was last divorced from antiques restorer Claudia Bailey, who remained close. His first wife, Stephanie Brundage, is the mother of his children.
Elena said her parents ``were married in '64 by a [Boston] justice of the peace seven days after they met. Dad didn't want to get drafted'' for the Vietnam War. ``They fell in love after.''
They returned to North Miami and divorced in 1979.
Galvin met Kaplan in 1989, when both ran for council seats. Galvin won; Kaplan lost.
``Al was a very 1960s hippie Democrat,'' he said. ``He certainly was not the establishment candidate.''
Kaplan served on the city planning commission.
Kaplan made his living shooting freelance news photos, record-album covers, weddings, Little League team portraits, March of Dimes promos -- whatever came along.
Lately, Kaplan was engaged in a self-portrait project -- with Monkette.
``The monkey started as a joke,'' Jonathan said. A childhood toy monkey ``got shipped around'' and photographed in various settings, then ``acquired a girlfriend: Monkette.''
Monkette disappeared for a while, Galvin said, then reappeared about three years ago. Kaplan brought her ``to an FPL protest, to city hall, to Starbucks, as a conversation starter with young ladies. He'd put her into the frame of photos.''
He often spoke through Monkette on his blog, where she endorsed council candidates and commented on the issues.
People who knew Kaplan ``got a chuckle,'' Galvin said. ``He had that great mop of hair and a beard, and he looked woolly and scary. He wasn't one to wear a tie, or if he wanted to make people wonder why he was wearing a tie, he'd wear one. He was having fun.''
Kaplan was ``a bit of an instigator,'' his son said, ``but he viewed civility as a fundamental component of democracy, and when that was threatened, he was upset.''
Friends and family will celebrate Kaplan's life at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Griffing Adult Center, 12220 Griffing Blvd./NE Third Ave., North Miami.