Primitive Florida

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs.

Words by

Southeast Museum of Photography

Carlton Ward Jr., American Alligator, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida, 2018

Celebrating the land ‘where the sawgrass meets the sky’

Featuring photographs by: Jennifer Adler |  Eric Clay |  Benjamin Dimmitt |  Paul Marcellini  |  Tessa Skiles  |  Mac Stone  |  Carlton Ward Jr.  

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles, Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

Introduction

How long do we have before the lure of unbridled development and rampant tourism– coupled with the effects of climate change–leave our state irrevocably compromised? This question is for all Floridians–including the 900+ newcomers who arrive daily–and the importance of finding an answer cannot be overstated. Environmental degradation, loss of habitat and deforestation, pollution, and threats from non-native species are all simply a matter of fact. It is estimated that we lose about 20 acres of wild Florida every hour.  It’s not just the wetlands that are disappearing: Florida has lost more than seven million acres of forest to development. It is up to us to determine how rapidly it will continue, and what the long term effects of our environmental policies will mean for the future. Florida’s population will only continue to expand, passing 21.5 million in 2020.

For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.

— Dr. Archie Carr

Marsh Sunset © Paul Marcellini

What’s at stake

Florida has over 1,200 miles of coastline, nearly 4,500 square miles of estuaries and bays, more than 6,700 square miles of other coastal waters, and an abundance of low lying topography. Its water follows a cyclical path in a constant state of flowing to and from within a vast network more extensive than in any other part of the country. In addition, most of the state’s 21 million residents live within 60 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, natural resources drive the majority of Florida’s economy. Recreational activities–observation of wildlife, fishing, boating, hunting–and the seafood industry have a combined economic impact of $42.8 billion and create over 347,000 jobs. Florida also hosts over 100 million visitors a year, with many of them here to explore and enjoy the beauty of Florida’s wildlife and outdoors. With Florida’s economy so closely tied to these natural resources, it seems mutually beneficial to restore freshwater and marine ecosystems, improve habitat for wildlife and enact policies to protect endangered species.

Florida’s coastal and marine resources comprise some of the nation’s most diverse and productive ecosystems, supporting vast numbers of aquatic and terrestrial animals and plants—some of which exist nowhere else on earth. These ecosystems include the coastal ocean, coral reefs, barrier islands, bays, estuaries, tidal salt marshes, creeks and mangrove swamps. Florida supports one of the largest numbers of carnivorous plant species, nearly one-half of the orchid species found in North America and the most fern species in the continental United States.  The Florida Panhandle is considered one of the five richest biodiversity hotspots in North America. Unfortunately, more than 50 species of Florida’s wildlife are teetering on the brink of extinction, and many more are listed as imperiled or threatened. What’s to be done? Can we save these species before it’s too late?

I am an optimist. I also believe that Floridians care about their environment. If they are educated about its perils, if they are never lied to, they will become stewards of the wild places that are left.”

— Marjorie Harris Carr, Environmental Activist

Conservation through the camera lens

As Florida’s population continues to burgeon, protecting these vulnerable resources remains paramount. The conservation movement has long recognized the importance of promoting a sense of connectivity between people and their environment. This connectivity fosters understanding and a sense of appreciation, and eventually spurs action to preserve these fragile areas from further harm. Contemplating nature within the frame of photography–specifically through the lenses of seven native Floridians – invites us to view this state through their eyes, and to understand the inherent beauty before us. For conservation-minded photographers, such as the ones presented in this exhibition, their art form becomes just as readily a platform–a means of saving the very subjects they photograph.

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles,  Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

White Pelicans © Mac Stone

Celebrating the wild

This collection of photographs includes small details–the texture of whirligig beetles as they congregate on the water’s surface, the unique structure of the American Lotus flower, the delicate curve of a mangrove root and an alligator barely visible, camouflaged amongst a patch of duckweed. It is a marvel to note the wonder of a burrowing owl (realizing it is being watched), the distinctive contrast of a red rat snake as it slithers across a fallen oak, and to mark the bright spots of red and yellow that dot the landscape as freshly fallen leaves, signaling a change in season. Yet it also provides us with artfully composed aerial and underwater views. We follow along as white pelicans soar gracefully above their breeding grounds; swallow-tailed kites roost in record numbers, and the twisting route of Juniper Creek takes on an almost serpentine quality.  Venturing below the surface, we come face to face with the state’s official marine mammal, the manatee. Ponderously slow, these genteel creatures are threatened, along with the loggerhead sea turtles so common to Florida’s shores.

Into the woods

Swamps, or forest wetlands, are widely distributed throughout the state, the largest encompassing 18,000 square miles of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, known as the Everglades and the greater Everglades ecosystem. The entire watershed spans from the Kissimmee River basin north of Lake Okeechobee all the way south to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Aspects of domes, bays, strands and hammocks (types of swamps) are found in these photographs. There is a raw beauty in the winding roots of the tupelo trees and in the wide buttresses of the cypress. Some have existed for more than five centuries, standing watch like sentinels over the rest of forest. There is a sense of time slowing as the mysterious nature of the swamp reveals itself in almost palpable fashion: one can imagine the sound of water moving sluggishly along, the wind pushing its way through low hanging moss and blades of sawgrass, the distinctive groans of alligators as they announce their presence, the chattering cries of birds, and the incessant hum of insect wings. Every few feet of elevation introduces an entirely new ecosystem with its own unique adaptations. The Everglades is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles coexist.

Raccoons © Mac Stone

Snakes and vultures are often viewed as nuisances, though both play a vital role in the Everglades ecosystem. Snakes help reduce rodent populations that destroy crops and sometimes carry diseases. Non-venomous snakes have been known to consume venomous ones, and only 6 out of Florida’s 44 native species are venomous. Overlooking their unseemly appearance, vultures possess unique digestive systems, enabling them to consume diseased or decaying food. Though undervalued, both species are an important part of the Everglades ecosystem, helping to maintain balance and equilibrium in the wetlands. The swamp invites exploration as much as prohibits it, so much is owed to the skill of the photographers in understanding animal behaviors, migratory patterns and seasonal changes in order to capture the perfect shot. There is also the great expense of maintaining remote camera systems, which have captured otherwise impossible views of the Florida black bear, Florida panther, North American river otters, and raccoons. Raccoons have suffered a decline in population due to the invasive Burmese python, which is also being blamed for wiping out numbers of opossums, bobcats, and other small Everglades mammals.

A scientific breakthrough

Perhaps most importantly, we witness a rare discovery: the pollination of the ghost orchid–one of the world’s most iconic flowers–by more than one species of moth. Captured by remote trigger, this upends previous theories and affirms the need for continued research. Mac Stone and Carlton Ward–each man investing several years in the pursuit of this goal–solved a mystery stretching back to Darwin’s day, answering questions the intrepid explorer could only muse about in his botanical journals. Having definitive proof that multiple moths are capable of pollinating the ghost orchid is a hopeful sign for its future, as no more than 2,000 of them remain, mostly in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples.

Fig Sphinx © Carlton Ward Jr.

Orchid Facts

  • As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.
  • They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.
  • The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours. Courtesy National Geographic

What lies beneath

As hardwood forests yield to remote rivers and springs, we are introduced to another world beneath the surface, one sustained by aquifers. Bubbling upwards from cavernous depths, a vast network of more than 300 springs deliver the eight billion gallons of water produced on a daily basis. These crystalline waters are teeming with life, populated with manatees, alligators, turtles, snakes, fish and aquatic plants. Marcellini provides panoramic views of Zephyr Spring and Dogwood Springs, the latter featuring a yawning chasm seen just below the surface, the blue water beckoning viewers to take a closer look. And what’s below the surface? Tessa Skiles and Mac Stone share close-ups of sunshine and largemouth bass, longnose and juvenile gar, schools of bluegill sunfish, spiny lobsters, a snapping turtle and frogs. Their split perspectives give the viewer a sense of being both above and below the water, effectively showing two different environments simultaneously.

Manatee Calf © Tessa Skiles

Jennifer Adler’s underwater images convey a world in which we can only be temporary participants, yet our actions and activities directly affect everything below the surface. She presents us with images of divers as they appear suspended in their watery environs–expertly framed in each by a cavernous opening and a ring of trees. The human element appears small in this instance, as nature impressively surrounds, serving as a reminder that we are all stewards, entrusted to care and conserve this environment as we enjoy and explore it. Her images are lush and colorful, and the unique mirroring effect (seen as grasses gently sway and appear to reach the surface) gives a sense that there is no end to this watery domain, as above and below are merged into a single element, indistinguishable from one another and as far-reaching and one’s eye can see.

Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park © Jennifer Adler | Once upon a time, meadows of flowing green grasses dominated Blue Springs. One year later (2018) after hurricane Irma, this same spot was barren sand covered in algae. It has not yet recovered.

The root of it all

Mangrove forests are a common sight along Florida’s shorelines and the southwest coast supports one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world. Along with tidal marshes and other coastal ecosystems, they provide shoreline protection, water filtration and habitat for a number of important fish and wildlife species. Both Marcellini and Dimmitt share a particular affinity for the salt marsh and mangrove environment; their images become tantalizing studies of both form and function. Known as “walking trees” to the Seminoles, red mangroves stretch their spindly legs outwards, forming mazes of root systems that seem to reach in every direction. A lemon shark, captured by Mac Stone, glides beneath the brackish water, navigating the roots with ease. Female lemon sharks deposit their pups in shallow, coastal waters, and can live in these reef and mangrove nurseries for up to four years. Habitat destruction and loss– combined with commercial and recreational fisheries–pose a serious threat to these sharks, putting their status at “near threatened.” Stone also shows a mangrove jelly, brownish-yellow in color, with fleshy arms and several large filaments suspended beneath. Its colors are reflected from algae living within its own tissues. As the mangrove roots aerate the shallow water warmed by the sun, this photosynthetic algae produces extra nutrients that enrich the jellyfish in a symbiotic relationship. For animals such as these, any shifting or shrinking of this complex environment can have devastating consequences. A collapse in one system will adversely affect the next, rather like a ripple effect–each issue compounding the next, causing further alarm, as destruction of habitat persists.

Mangrove Monsoon © Paul Marcellini

Mangroves extend across the landscape, waiting patiently for an infusion of fresh water as impressive thunderheads gather, rolling across the sky with the promise of a soaking rain. The weather itself lends its own character to the show; there are blankets of fog and piercing rays of light, atmospheric rainbows and summer storms. Marcellini chases golden light, fiery sunsets and arching rainbows as they fill the skies. These riotous colors are reflected in the marsh below, the enchantment of its mirrored surface only broken by the cattails and water lilies spearing upwards. Sabal palms, common to the very heart of Florida, appear to wave their fronds in the wind as they stand out amidst the surrounding flat and dense grasslands.

Benjamin Dimmitt’s photographic journey has been distinctly shaped by his native roots. Though living elsewhere for the past 30 years, he always returns home to a familiar subject: the estuaries, waterways and coastlines he explored in his youth. This landscape, though firmly imprinted in his memory, has been subject to many changes over the years. Mangroves are very sensitive to fluctuating temperatures, salinity levels and shifting intertidal zones. This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the proliferation of invasive species. Dimmitt’s imagery captures both the fragility of this environment and its unconventional beauty. The twisting knees and gnarled knots of their lengthy appendages are shown to great advantage; through his lens, these mangroves appear as organic sculptures along Florida’s coast.

Mangroves & Shoreline © Benjamin Dimmitt

Eric Clay’s photographs are rich in detail and texture, and have a depth that draw the viewer into the frame. His love of nature and the impact its had on his life is clearly evident in his outlook: “Environmental protection is not a partisan issue. Everyone should care about it.” He believes that once Floridians are aware of what’s in their backyard, they can–and will–vote to preserve it. Clay’s monochromatic landscapes offer impressive, albeit somber, views of the salt marsh and coastal areas. Large swathes of land, echoes of old Florida, are captured with precision and intent. We see, with clarity of vision, the transformations taking place and issues that must be addressed for these landscapes to persist.

Windswept Grass © Eric Clay

July 8 - September 4, 2020
Southeast Museum of Photography
Daytona Beach, Florida
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Primitive Florida

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs.

Words by

Southeast Museum of Photography

Carlton Ward Jr., American Alligator, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida, 2018

Celebrating the land ‘where the sawgrass meets the sky’

Featuring photographs by: Jennifer Adler |  Eric Clay |  Benjamin Dimmitt |  Paul Marcellini  |  Tessa Skiles  |  Mac Stone  |  Carlton Ward Jr.  

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles, Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

Introduction

How long do we have before the lure of unbridled development and rampant tourism– coupled with the effects of climate change–leave our state irrevocably compromised? This question is for all Floridians–including the 900+ newcomers who arrive daily–and the importance of finding an answer cannot be overstated. Environmental degradation, loss of habitat and deforestation, pollution, and threats from non-native species are all simply a matter of fact. It is estimated that we lose about 20 acres of wild Florida every hour.  It’s not just the wetlands that are disappearing: Florida has lost more than seven million acres of forest to development. It is up to us to determine how rapidly it will continue, and what the long term effects of our environmental policies will mean for the future. Florida’s population will only continue to expand, passing 21.5 million in 2020.

For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.

— Dr. Archie Carr

Marsh Sunset © Paul Marcellini

What’s at stake

Florida has over 1,200 miles of coastline, nearly 4,500 square miles of estuaries and bays, more than 6,700 square miles of other coastal waters, and an abundance of low lying topography. Its water follows a cyclical path in a constant state of flowing to and from within a vast network more extensive than in any other part of the country. In addition, most of the state’s 21 million residents live within 60 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, natural resources drive the majority of Florida’s economy. Recreational activities–observation of wildlife, fishing, boating, hunting–and the seafood industry have a combined economic impact of $42.8 billion and create over 347,000 jobs. Florida also hosts over 100 million visitors a year, with many of them here to explore and enjoy the beauty of Florida’s wildlife and outdoors. With Florida’s economy so closely tied to these natural resources, it seems mutually beneficial to restore freshwater and marine ecosystems, improve habitat for wildlife and enact policies to protect endangered species.

Florida’s coastal and marine resources comprise some of the nation’s most diverse and productive ecosystems, supporting vast numbers of aquatic and terrestrial animals and plants—some of which exist nowhere else on earth. These ecosystems include the coastal ocean, coral reefs, barrier islands, bays, estuaries, tidal salt marshes, creeks and mangrove swamps. Florida supports one of the largest numbers of carnivorous plant species, nearly one-half of the orchid species found in North America and the most fern species in the continental United States.  The Florida Panhandle is considered one of the five richest biodiversity hotspots in North America. Unfortunately, more than 50 species of Florida’s wildlife are teetering on the brink of extinction, and many more are listed as imperiled or threatened. What’s to be done? Can we save these species before it’s too late?

I am an optimist. I also believe that Floridians care about their environment. If they are educated about its perils, if they are never lied to, they will become stewards of the wild places that are left.”

— Marjorie Harris Carr, Environmental Activist

Conservation through the camera lens

As Florida’s population continues to burgeon, protecting these vulnerable resources remains paramount. The conservation movement has long recognized the importance of promoting a sense of connectivity between people and their environment. This connectivity fosters understanding and a sense of appreciation, and eventually spurs action to preserve these fragile areas from further harm. Contemplating nature within the frame of photography–specifically through the lenses of seven native Floridians – invites us to view this state through their eyes, and to understand the inherent beauty before us. For conservation-minded photographers, such as the ones presented in this exhibition, their art form becomes just as readily a platform–a means of saving the very subjects they photograph.

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles,  Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

White Pelicans © Mac Stone

Celebrating the wild

This collection of photographs includes small details–the texture of whirligig beetles as they congregate on the water’s surface, the unique structure of the American Lotus flower, the delicate curve of a mangrove root and an alligator barely visible, camouflaged amongst a patch of duckweed. It is a marvel to note the wonder of a burrowing owl (realizing it is being watched), the distinctive contrast of a red rat snake as it slithers across a fallen oak, and to mark the bright spots of red and yellow that dot the landscape as freshly fallen leaves, signaling a change in season. Yet it also provides us with artfully composed aerial and underwater views. We follow along as white pelicans soar gracefully above their breeding grounds; swallow-tailed kites roost in record numbers, and the twisting route of Juniper Creek takes on an almost serpentine quality.  Venturing below the surface, we come face to face with the state’s official marine mammal, the manatee. Ponderously slow, these genteel creatures are threatened, along with the loggerhead sea turtles so common to Florida’s shores.

Into the woods

Swamps, or forest wetlands, are widely distributed throughout the state, the largest encompassing 18,000 square miles of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, known as the Everglades and the greater Everglades ecosystem. The entire watershed spans from the Kissimmee River basin north of Lake Okeechobee all the way south to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Aspects of domes, bays, strands and hammocks (types of swamps) are found in these photographs. There is a raw beauty in the winding roots of the tupelo trees and in the wide buttresses of the cypress. Some have existed for more than five centuries, standing watch like sentinels over the rest of forest. There is a sense of time slowing as the mysterious nature of the swamp reveals itself in almost palpable fashion: one can imagine the sound of water moving sluggishly along, the wind pushing its way through low hanging moss and blades of sawgrass, the distinctive groans of alligators as they announce their presence, the chattering cries of birds, and the incessant hum of insect wings. Every few feet of elevation introduces an entirely new ecosystem with its own unique adaptations. The Everglades is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles coexist.

Raccoons © Mac Stone

Snakes and vultures are often viewed as nuisances, though both play a vital role in the Everglades ecosystem. Snakes help reduce rodent populations that destroy crops and sometimes carry diseases. Non-venomous snakes have been known to consume venomous ones, and only 6 out of Florida’s 44 native species are venomous. Overlooking their unseemly appearance, vultures possess unique digestive systems, enabling them to consume diseased or decaying food. Though undervalued, both species are an important part of the Everglades ecosystem, helping to maintain balance and equilibrium in the wetlands. The swamp invites exploration as much as prohibits it, so much is owed to the skill of the photographers in understanding animal behaviors, migratory patterns and seasonal changes in order to capture the perfect shot. There is also the great expense of maintaining remote camera systems, which have captured otherwise impossible views of the Florida black bear, Florida panther, North American river otters, and raccoons. Raccoons have suffered a decline in population due to the invasive Burmese python, which is also being blamed for wiping out numbers of opossums, bobcats, and other small Everglades mammals.

A scientific breakthrough

Perhaps most importantly, we witness a rare discovery: the pollination of the ghost orchid–one of the world’s most iconic flowers–by more than one species of moth. Captured by remote trigger, this upends previous theories and affirms the need for continued research. Mac Stone and Carlton Ward–each man investing several years in the pursuit of this goal–solved a mystery stretching back to Darwin’s day, answering questions the intrepid explorer could only muse about in his botanical journals. Having definitive proof that multiple moths are capable of pollinating the ghost orchid is a hopeful sign for its future, as no more than 2,000 of them remain, mostly in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples.

Fig Sphinx © Carlton Ward Jr.

Orchid Facts

  • As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.
  • They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.
  • The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours. Courtesy National Geographic

What lies beneath

As hardwood forests yield to remote rivers and springs, we are introduced to another world beneath the surface, one sustained by aquifers. Bubbling upwards from cavernous depths, a vast network of more than 300 springs deliver the eight billion gallons of water produced on a daily basis. These crystalline waters are teeming with life, populated with manatees, alligators, turtles, snakes, fish and aquatic plants. Marcellini provides panoramic views of Zephyr Spring and Dogwood Springs, the latter featuring a yawning chasm seen just below the surface, the blue water beckoning viewers to take a closer look. And what’s below the surface? Tessa Skiles and Mac Stone share close-ups of sunshine and largemouth bass, longnose and juvenile gar, schools of bluegill sunfish, spiny lobsters, a snapping turtle and frogs. Their split perspectives give the viewer a sense of being both above and below the water, effectively showing two different environments simultaneously.

Manatee Calf © Tessa Skiles

Jennifer Adler’s underwater images convey a world in which we can only be temporary participants, yet our actions and activities directly affect everything below the surface. She presents us with images of divers as they appear suspended in their watery environs–expertly framed in each by a cavernous opening and a ring of trees. The human element appears small in this instance, as nature impressively surrounds, serving as a reminder that we are all stewards, entrusted to care and conserve this environment as we enjoy and explore it. Her images are lush and colorful, and the unique mirroring effect (seen as grasses gently sway and appear to reach the surface) gives a sense that there is no end to this watery domain, as above and below are merged into a single element, indistinguishable from one another and as far-reaching and one’s eye can see.

Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park © Jennifer Adler | Once upon a time, meadows of flowing green grasses dominated Blue Springs. One year later (2018) after hurricane Irma, this same spot was barren sand covered in algae. It has not yet recovered.

The root of it all

Mangrove forests are a common sight along Florida’s shorelines and the southwest coast supports one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world. Along with tidal marshes and other coastal ecosystems, they provide shoreline protection, water filtration and habitat for a number of important fish and wildlife species. Both Marcellini and Dimmitt share a particular affinity for the salt marsh and mangrove environment; their images become tantalizing studies of both form and function. Known as “walking trees” to the Seminoles, red mangroves stretch their spindly legs outwards, forming mazes of root systems that seem to reach in every direction. A lemon shark, captured by Mac Stone, glides beneath the brackish water, navigating the roots with ease. Female lemon sharks deposit their pups in shallow, coastal waters, and can live in these reef and mangrove nurseries for up to four years. Habitat destruction and loss– combined with commercial and recreational fisheries–pose a serious threat to these sharks, putting their status at “near threatened.” Stone also shows a mangrove jelly, brownish-yellow in color, with fleshy arms and several large filaments suspended beneath. Its colors are reflected from algae living within its own tissues. As the mangrove roots aerate the shallow water warmed by the sun, this photosynthetic algae produces extra nutrients that enrich the jellyfish in a symbiotic relationship. For animals such as these, any shifting or shrinking of this complex environment can have devastating consequences. A collapse in one system will adversely affect the next, rather like a ripple effect–each issue compounding the next, causing further alarm, as destruction of habitat persists.

Mangrove Monsoon © Paul Marcellini

Mangroves extend across the landscape, waiting patiently for an infusion of fresh water as impressive thunderheads gather, rolling across the sky with the promise of a soaking rain. The weather itself lends its own character to the show; there are blankets of fog and piercing rays of light, atmospheric rainbows and summer storms. Marcellini chases golden light, fiery sunsets and arching rainbows as they fill the skies. These riotous colors are reflected in the marsh below, the enchantment of its mirrored surface only broken by the cattails and water lilies spearing upwards. Sabal palms, common to the very heart of Florida, appear to wave their fronds in the wind as they stand out amidst the surrounding flat and dense grasslands.

Benjamin Dimmitt’s photographic journey has been distinctly shaped by his native roots. Though living elsewhere for the past 30 years, he always returns home to a familiar subject: the estuaries, waterways and coastlines he explored in his youth. This landscape, though firmly imprinted in his memory, has been subject to many changes over the years. Mangroves are very sensitive to fluctuating temperatures, salinity levels and shifting intertidal zones. This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the proliferation of invasive species. Dimmitt’s imagery captures both the fragility of this environment and its unconventional beauty. The twisting knees and gnarled knots of their lengthy appendages are shown to great advantage; through his lens, these mangroves appear as organic sculptures along Florida’s coast.

Mangroves & Shoreline © Benjamin Dimmitt

Eric Clay’s photographs are rich in detail and texture, and have a depth that draw the viewer into the frame. His love of nature and the impact its had on his life is clearly evident in his outlook: “Environmental protection is not a partisan issue. Everyone should care about it.” He believes that once Floridians are aware of what’s in their backyard, they can–and will–vote to preserve it. Clay’s monochromatic landscapes offer impressive, albeit somber, views of the salt marsh and coastal areas. Large swathes of land, echoes of old Florida, are captured with precision and intent. We see, with clarity of vision, the transformations taking place and issues that must be addressed for these landscapes to persist.

Windswept Grass © Eric Clay

July 8 - September 4, 2020
Southeast Museum of Photography
Daytona Beach, Florida
More information

Primitive Florida

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs.

Words by

Southeast Museum of Photography

Carlton Ward Jr., American Alligator, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida, 2018

Celebrating the land ‘where the sawgrass meets the sky’

Featuring photographs by: Jennifer Adler |  Eric Clay |  Benjamin Dimmitt |  Paul Marcellini  |  Tessa Skiles  |  Mac Stone  |  Carlton Ward Jr.  

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles, Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

Introduction

How long do we have before the lure of unbridled development and rampant tourism– coupled with the effects of climate change–leave our state irrevocably compromised? This question is for all Floridians–including the 900+ newcomers who arrive daily–and the importance of finding an answer cannot be overstated. Environmental degradation, loss of habitat and deforestation, pollution, and threats from non-native species are all simply a matter of fact. It is estimated that we lose about 20 acres of wild Florida every hour.  It’s not just the wetlands that are disappearing: Florida has lost more than seven million acres of forest to development. It is up to us to determine how rapidly it will continue, and what the long term effects of our environmental policies will mean for the future. Florida’s population will only continue to expand, passing 21.5 million in 2020.

For most of the wild things on earth, the future must depend on the conscience of mankind.

— Dr. Archie Carr

Marsh Sunset © Paul Marcellini

What’s at stake

Florida has over 1,200 miles of coastline, nearly 4,500 square miles of estuaries and bays, more than 6,700 square miles of other coastal waters, and an abundance of low lying topography. Its water follows a cyclical path in a constant state of flowing to and from within a vast network more extensive than in any other part of the country. In addition, most of the state’s 21 million residents live within 60 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, natural resources drive the majority of Florida’s economy. Recreational activities–observation of wildlife, fishing, boating, hunting–and the seafood industry have a combined economic impact of $42.8 billion and create over 347,000 jobs. Florida also hosts over 100 million visitors a year, with many of them here to explore and enjoy the beauty of Florida’s wildlife and outdoors. With Florida’s economy so closely tied to these natural resources, it seems mutually beneficial to restore freshwater and marine ecosystems, improve habitat for wildlife and enact policies to protect endangered species.

Florida’s coastal and marine resources comprise some of the nation’s most diverse and productive ecosystems, supporting vast numbers of aquatic and terrestrial animals and plants—some of which exist nowhere else on earth. These ecosystems include the coastal ocean, coral reefs, barrier islands, bays, estuaries, tidal salt marshes, creeks and mangrove swamps. Florida supports one of the largest numbers of carnivorous plant species, nearly one-half of the orchid species found in North America and the most fern species in the continental United States.  The Florida Panhandle is considered one of the five richest biodiversity hotspots in North America. Unfortunately, more than 50 species of Florida’s wildlife are teetering on the brink of extinction, and many more are listed as imperiled or threatened. What’s to be done? Can we save these species before it’s too late?

I am an optimist. I also believe that Floridians care about their environment. If they are educated about its perils, if they are never lied to, they will become stewards of the wild places that are left.”

— Marjorie Harris Carr, Environmental Activist

Conservation through the camera lens

As Florida’s population continues to burgeon, protecting these vulnerable resources remains paramount. The conservation movement has long recognized the importance of promoting a sense of connectivity between people and their environment. This connectivity fosters understanding and a sense of appreciation, and eventually spurs action to preserve these fragile areas from further harm. Contemplating nature within the frame of photography–specifically through the lenses of seven native Floridians – invites us to view this state through their eyes, and to understand the inherent beauty before us. For conservation-minded photographers, such as the ones presented in this exhibition, their art form becomes just as readily a platform–a means of saving the very subjects they photograph.

Primitive Florida presents an alluring view of our state’s natural wonders–taking us on a visual journey through bottomland swamps, estuaries, coastal lowlands, pine flatwoods and freshwater springs. Through captivating photographs by Jennifer Adler, Eric Clay, Benjamin Dimmitt, Paul Marcellini, Tessa Skiles,  Mac Stone and Carlton Ward Jr. we are offered a glimpse of true wilderness–a more primitive Florida–surprisingly hidden within plain sight.

White Pelicans © Mac Stone

Celebrating the wild

This collection of photographs includes small details–the texture of whirligig beetles as they congregate on the water’s surface, the unique structure of the American Lotus flower, the delicate curve of a mangrove root and an alligator barely visible, camouflaged amongst a patch of duckweed. It is a marvel to note the wonder of a burrowing owl (realizing it is being watched), the distinctive contrast of a red rat snake as it slithers across a fallen oak, and to mark the bright spots of red and yellow that dot the landscape as freshly fallen leaves, signaling a change in season. Yet it also provides us with artfully composed aerial and underwater views. We follow along as white pelicans soar gracefully above their breeding grounds; swallow-tailed kites roost in record numbers, and the twisting route of Juniper Creek takes on an almost serpentine quality.  Venturing below the surface, we come face to face with the state’s official marine mammal, the manatee. Ponderously slow, these genteel creatures are threatened, along with the loggerhead sea turtles so common to Florida’s shores.

Into the woods

Swamps, or forest wetlands, are widely distributed throughout the state, the largest encompassing 18,000 square miles of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, known as the Everglades and the greater Everglades ecosystem. The entire watershed spans from the Kissimmee River basin north of Lake Okeechobee all the way south to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Aspects of domes, bays, strands and hammocks (types of swamps) are found in these photographs. There is a raw beauty in the winding roots of the tupelo trees and in the wide buttresses of the cypress. Some have existed for more than five centuries, standing watch like sentinels over the rest of forest. There is a sense of time slowing as the mysterious nature of the swamp reveals itself in almost palpable fashion: one can imagine the sound of water moving sluggishly along, the wind pushing its way through low hanging moss and blades of sawgrass, the distinctive groans of alligators as they announce their presence, the chattering cries of birds, and the incessant hum of insect wings. Every few feet of elevation introduces an entirely new ecosystem with its own unique adaptations. The Everglades is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles coexist.

Raccoons © Mac Stone

Snakes and vultures are often viewed as nuisances, though both play a vital role in the Everglades ecosystem. Snakes help reduce rodent populations that destroy crops and sometimes carry diseases. Non-venomous snakes have been known to consume venomous ones, and only 6 out of Florida’s 44 native species are venomous. Overlooking their unseemly appearance, vultures possess unique digestive systems, enabling them to consume diseased or decaying food. Though undervalued, both species are an important part of the Everglades ecosystem, helping to maintain balance and equilibrium in the wetlands. The swamp invites exploration as much as prohibits it, so much is owed to the skill of the photographers in understanding animal behaviors, migratory patterns and seasonal changes in order to capture the perfect shot. There is also the great expense of maintaining remote camera systems, which have captured otherwise impossible views of the Florida black bear, Florida panther, North American river otters, and raccoons. Raccoons have suffered a decline in population due to the invasive Burmese python, which is also being blamed for wiping out numbers of opossums, bobcats, and other small Everglades mammals.

A scientific breakthrough

Perhaps most importantly, we witness a rare discovery: the pollination of the ghost orchid–one of the world’s most iconic flowers–by more than one species of moth. Captured by remote trigger, this upends previous theories and affirms the need for continued research. Mac Stone and Carlton Ward–each man investing several years in the pursuit of this goal–solved a mystery stretching back to Darwin’s day, answering questions the intrepid explorer could only muse about in his botanical journals. Having definitive proof that multiple moths are capable of pollinating the ghost orchid is a hopeful sign for its future, as no more than 2,000 of them remain, mostly in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples.

Fig Sphinx © Carlton Ward Jr.

Orchid Facts

  • As few as 10 percent of them flower each year during an unpredictable window in the summer. The plant has no leaves, consisting of green roots that cling to the bark of several tree species. When they aren’t blooming, they look like unremarkable bits of green linguine, and are difficult to find.
  • They also generally live in swamps that are not easy to access—and home to animals such as bears, panthers, alligators, and several venomous snake species, which dissuades many from attempting to see one.
  • The two photographers had their cameras trained on the flowers for a total of 7,000 hours. Courtesy National Geographic

What lies beneath

As hardwood forests yield to remote rivers and springs, we are introduced to another world beneath the surface, one sustained by aquifers. Bubbling upwards from cavernous depths, a vast network of more than 300 springs deliver the eight billion gallons of water produced on a daily basis. These crystalline waters are teeming with life, populated with manatees, alligators, turtles, snakes, fish and aquatic plants. Marcellini provides panoramic views of Zephyr Spring and Dogwood Springs, the latter featuring a yawning chasm seen just below the surface, the blue water beckoning viewers to take a closer look. And what’s below the surface? Tessa Skiles and Mac Stone share close-ups of sunshine and largemouth bass, longnose and juvenile gar, schools of bluegill sunfish, spiny lobsters, a snapping turtle and frogs. Their split perspectives give the viewer a sense of being both above and below the water, effectively showing two different environments simultaneously.

Manatee Calf © Tessa Skiles

Jennifer Adler’s underwater images convey a world in which we can only be temporary participants, yet our actions and activities directly affect everything below the surface. She presents us with images of divers as they appear suspended in their watery environs–expertly framed in each by a cavernous opening and a ring of trees. The human element appears small in this instance, as nature impressively surrounds, serving as a reminder that we are all stewards, entrusted to care and conserve this environment as we enjoy and explore it. Her images are lush and colorful, and the unique mirroring effect (seen as grasses gently sway and appear to reach the surface) gives a sense that there is no end to this watery domain, as above and below are merged into a single element, indistinguishable from one another and as far-reaching and one’s eye can see.

Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park © Jennifer Adler | Once upon a time, meadows of flowing green grasses dominated Blue Springs. One year later (2018) after hurricane Irma, this same spot was barren sand covered in algae. It has not yet recovered.

The root of it all

Mangrove forests are a common sight along Florida’s shorelines and the southwest coast supports one of the largest mangrove swamps in the world. Along with tidal marshes and other coastal ecosystems, they provide shoreline protection, water filtration and habitat for a number of important fish and wildlife species. Both Marcellini and Dimmitt share a particular affinity for the salt marsh and mangrove environment; their images become tantalizing studies of both form and function. Known as “walking trees” to the Seminoles, red mangroves stretch their spindly legs outwards, forming mazes of root systems that seem to reach in every direction. A lemon shark, captured by Mac Stone, glides beneath the brackish water, navigating the roots with ease. Female lemon sharks deposit their pups in shallow, coastal waters, and can live in these reef and mangrove nurseries for up to four years. Habitat destruction and loss– combined with commercial and recreational fisheries–pose a serious threat to these sharks, putting their status at “near threatened.” Stone also shows a mangrove jelly, brownish-yellow in color, with fleshy arms and several large filaments suspended beneath. Its colors are reflected from algae living within its own tissues. As the mangrove roots aerate the shallow water warmed by the sun, this photosynthetic algae produces extra nutrients that enrich the jellyfish in a symbiotic relationship. For animals such as these, any shifting or shrinking of this complex environment can have devastating consequences. A collapse in one system will adversely affect the next, rather like a ripple effect–each issue compounding the next, causing further alarm, as destruction of habitat persists.

Mangrove Monsoon © Paul Marcellini

Mangroves extend across the landscape, waiting patiently for an infusion of fresh water as impressive thunderheads gather, rolling across the sky with the promise of a soaking rain. The weather itself lends its own character to the show; there are blankets of fog and piercing rays of light, atmospheric rainbows and summer storms. Marcellini chases golden light, fiery sunsets and arching rainbows as they fill the skies. These riotous colors are reflected in the marsh below, the enchantment of its mirrored surface only broken by the cattails and water lilies spearing upwards. Sabal palms, common to the very heart of Florida, appear to wave their fronds in the wind as they stand out amidst the surrounding flat and dense grasslands.

Benjamin Dimmitt’s photographic journey has been distinctly shaped by his native roots. Though living elsewhere for the past 30 years, he always returns home to a familiar subject: the estuaries, waterways and coastlines he explored in his youth. This landscape, though firmly imprinted in his memory, has been subject to many changes over the years. Mangroves are very sensitive to fluctuating temperatures, salinity levels and shifting intertidal zones. This vulnerability is further exacerbated by the proliferation of invasive species. Dimmitt’s imagery captures both the fragility of this environment and its unconventional beauty. The twisting knees and gnarled knots of their lengthy appendages are shown to great advantage; through his lens, these mangroves appear as organic sculptures along Florida’s coast.

Mangroves & Shoreline © Benjamin Dimmitt

Eric Clay’s photographs are rich in detail and texture, and have a depth that draw the viewer into the frame. His love of nature and the impact its had on his life is clearly evident in his outlook: “Environmental protection is not a partisan issue. Everyone should care about it.” He believes that once Floridians are aware of what’s in their backyard, they can–and will–vote to preserve it. Clay’s monochromatic landscapes offer impressive, albeit somber, views of the salt marsh and coastal areas. Large swathes of land, echoes of old Florida, are captured with precision and intent. We see, with clarity of vision, the transformations taking place and issues that must be addressed for these landscapes to persist.

Windswept Grass © Eric Clay

July 8 - September 4, 2020
Southeast Museum of Photography
Daytona Beach, Florida
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