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Photographer laureate

The Florida we see through John Moran's camera lens is unscathed by development, unmatched in splendor and, perhaps, fleeting.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published April 5, 2005


GAINESVILLE - The most dangerous moment in a canoe is at the beginning, when one leather sandal is on the bank and the other is in the boat. Then even the world's most stable watercraft is a frisky mustang, eager to throw the rider. Clutching his just-out-of-the-box $5,000 Nikon, John Moran shifts his weight from bank to boat while holding his breath.

"I haven't gotten the camera insured yet," he says as the canoe bucks wildly.

A slight breeze blows through the cypress, though east Gainesville's Prairie Creek is washtub calm except for the gentle current that disappears around the bend. "Where are you going?" Moran asks the water, dipping the paddle. "Can I go, too?"

He often follows the water. At 49, Moran is among Florida's best landscape photographers and the author of a beautiful new book, Journal of Light, which contains work that often celebrates dreamy swamps, lakes and rivers. When he is paddling a canoe, when he is wading among the cypress knees and sidestepping water moccasins and alligators, he feels at home.

Of course, he also values at least a pinch of civilization. Nothing like one of those plastic containers made by Rubbermaid to keep cameras dry just in case the worst happens.

For the record, he has never swamped a canoe or lost a camera. He also knows there is always a first time.

He dips the paddle into the water. The canoe leaps ahead.

No evidence of alligators on the banks or in the water. Always a good thing when paddling narrow and shallow Prairie Creek - where a dinosaur rising from the bottom could surprise a paddler.

He knows a wader who lost his arm to an alligator a few years ago. Since then, Moran has been extra vigilant. Not anxious, but cognizant about the kind of state he lives in. For all its 17-million people and popular culture, Florida still contains a few rough edges.

He likes those edges, though he would never call the wilderness "rough." He is one of those New Age guys for whom the great outdoors is a grand cathedral. Last month, while paddling at Fisheating Creek, a swamp near Lake Okeechobee, on a photo expedition, he got lost. Naturally, he found it an almost mystical experience.

"I like the idea that you can still get lost in Florida," he says. "It means wild Florida is still alive. It was exciting."

Most of us prefer the paved and brightly lit, the air-conditioned room and the cell phone, charged and ready, in the back pocket. We depend on someone such as John Moran to show us what is beyond the road, behind the trees and back in the dark water, where the law of Darwin holds trump card.

The minnow eats the algae, the frog eats the minnow, the frog cries in terror - you can hear the frog's distress from around the bend - when the brown water snake grabs him.

Moran attempts to capture the drama and the everyday of natural Florida.

For one photo, he creeps close to an alligator nest as an egg hatches at sunrise. For another he lies in the muck at Paynes Prairie and enjoys a frog's-eye view of a lotus blossom. He swims into a creepy underwater cave to photograph a diver ascending into the light.

"My goal is to show people the Florida they have never seen," he says. "Or else I want to show them something familiar in a new way."

Ahead of the canoe, a squawking great blue heron flies between the cypress.

The canoe hangs up on a fallen log. The canoe wobbles precariously but stays upright.

Upright, but stuck.

Moran doesn't fret. He sits for a long moment and admires a distant oak. "Sometimes I watch people who are laboring in a canoe and wonder if they are late for an appointment," he says.

When he was 2, his parents did Florida a favor. They moved from Boston to Fort Myers. The Fort Myers of 1958 is different from the Fort Myers of today. Moran remembers playing hide and seek in the orange groves, building forts in the woods and exploring swamps to look for adventure - childish behavior most modern parents would never allow.

"I was lucky to grow up in Florida when I did," he says.

He wanted to be an astronomer, but discovered that professional stargazers needed strong math and science skills. In high school, he decided on architecture. "But I couldn't draw," he says. About then he discovered photography, which led him to the University of Florida's journalism school, and a job for more than two decades at the Gainesville Sun taking general assignment pictures that included nature portraits. He recently quit his news job to focus on his landscapes. He spends as more time in his Honda SUV - loaded with canoe, mountain bike and camera equipment - than at home.

"If Florida had a photographer laureate, John Moran should hold that title," says University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino. Nature photographer, that is.

He digs his paddle into the creek. The canoe leaps off the log.

Up ahead is a beach, a good place to stop for a snack, an orange and dried fruit. When he eats meat, Moran feels guilty. He and his wife, Peg - they married 29 years ago - have two adult daughters, one a vegan. "We didn't eat meat for 10 years to honor her values," he says. When she moved out they ate chicken. Enjoyed it, too. He worries about that.

He hunts - with his camera.

He hunts excellent trees. He hunts oaks especially. They remind him of wise and wrinkled grandfathers who know how to endure. He spent a year looking for the perfect oak to accompany his famous photograph of Comet Hale-Boppe in 1997 because he wanted the celestial event to be grounded in a Florida landscape. He built a special platform for his Nikon, a platform that would track the comet as the earth rotated. He used radio-triggered strobes to light up the wizened oak for 1/1000th of a second and kept the lens open another five minutes to capture the night sky.

"When I saw how the photo turned out, I cried," he says.

Take him at his word. If there are Druids in Florida, John Moran has danced with them in the moonlight.

He lives five minutes from the creek in a two-story house he designed. The house is shaded by magnificent oaks. The Morans have air-conditioning but they seldom use it. They have a shower in the bathroom but prefer the shower outside, except when icicles hang from the shower head. Their nearest neighbors, cows in a pasture, don't mind naked folks.

Mention Desperate Housewives and American Idol and you will draw blank looks. They aren't TV people either. On the stereo is an album of dreamy New Age melodies featuring flutes and pianos. What did you expect, Aerosmith?

In the living room, a swing hangs from the ceiling. There are two queen-sized beds upstairs, one inside for cold weather and one outside on the sun porch. When he and Peggy sleep on the sun porch they can watch meteor showers through the trees and hear the barred owls. In the morning, they are serenaded awake by the bald eagles who nest in a pine a hundred feet away.

Moran, by the way, can barely tolerates cities. Cities wear him out, depress him. When he gets lost in a city, which happens often, he is never invigorated. Swamps invigorate him. He recently visited the Fakahatchee near Naples. The Fakahatchee might be the wildest place left in the state, the home of panthers and bears and ghost orchids. He climbed a cabbage palm to take a photograph of one of the majestic royal palms that grow there in the wild. It was his first "keeper" photograph in a year.

"It's very hard for me to find something that I want to photograph these days," he says. "I've become very particular."

When he sees osprey chicks in a high nest, for example, he won't be tempted to photograph them from the ground. It's been done a million times. Instead, he borrows a cherry picker to lift him to the nest and mounts a camera and a mirror. Then he departs. Over days the ospreys acclimate to the strangers on the edge of the nest.

Moran waits patiently under the tree, using binoculars to keep track of the birds in the mirror. Suddenly an osprey chick flexes wings like it owns the world. By radio control Moran opens the camera shutter and gets the photograph that makes us appreciate the world of the osprey.

His photos show Florida as a Garden of Eden. That bothers him sometimes. "I worry that my photos distort the truth of what is happening in Florida," he says. "Not long ago I was taking a picture of a beach in southwest Florida. No matter where I stood, I still got condos in the frame. I finally found a place where I didn't. But that would have been a travesty, a fake, so I didn't take the picture.

"I live on the uneasy confluence of hope and pessimism. That's not where I want to be."

The canoe hangs up again. Hard paddling and enthusiastic body English set it free. There is one bad moment, when the bow paddler loses his balance, but the canoe stays upright. Then, up ahead, is the launch site, a bridge. Moran has taken no photographs with his new camera.

He will celebrate his 50th birthday next month at a hidden spring in Ocala National Forest and knows, for certain, that he will make a few pictures at the site. He has photographed the spring in the past - it is celebrated in his new book - but do not ask for a map.

He is tall and lanky and looks like the former athlete he once was, a marathoner and an avid swamp and woods runner, except for the limp. When he ran in the woods he felt akin to the wild animals. On one such run he jumped into a pond and shredded muscles on a sharp rock.

This summer he has a date with an orthopedic surgeon who will give him a new hip. Darwin even pays a call on New Age naturalists.

Before surgery he plans to build a raft he will call the "Swamp Cooter" after a favorite turtle. When he recovers from the surgery, he hopes to pole his raft down the Suwannee, document the journey with his Nikon and put the photos on his laptop. He wants to use his satellite phone to beam the photos to the World Wide Web. Huck Finn, meet Apple Computer.

But that is, if everything goes well with his surgery.

"I'm worried about it. My body is the most important thing in my camera bag. I'm almost a half century old. I'm feeling my mortality."

Later, at home, putting the canoe away, he is still thinking about the aging process and what lies beyond.

"I agree with this friend of mine who says that when he goes to the grave, he hopes his body is scarred and battered. My body will be scarred and battered for sure. It will show evidence of good use."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

LEARN MORE

John Moran will speak and show a slide show at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, 140 Seventh Ave. S. Free and open to the public, the presentation will be in Davis Hall, Room 130.

He will show his work at the Tarpon Springs Art Show on April 9 and 10. For more information, visit his Web site at www.johnmoranphoto.com

Photo by John Moran

Ospreys at Cedar Key, 1987

Photo by John Moran

Comet Hale-Bopp, Mathews Farm, Levy County, 1997

Photo by John Moran

Alligator Hatchling at Sunrise, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Alachua County, 2001

John Moran, 49, recently left his job at the Gainesville Sun to focus on his landscape photography.