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On a mission to capture a vanishing Florida

A photographer trying "to stay a step ahead of the developers and the hurricanes" will show some of his works.

By THERESA BLACKWELL , Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007


EAST LAKE- Storytellers capture Florida's magic in words, music, painting, sculpture and the dramatic art of photography.

John Moran has used his camera for decades to show us the natural Florida he loves.

Moran's remarkable images are being shown at the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center through Dec. 31. His sometimes sweeping, often intimate work features rivers, lakes, coasts, swamps, springs and the creatures living there.

Moran, 52, of Gainesville will be at the center from 1 to 4 p.m. today. Though his images speak for themselves, he shared these thoughts last week about Florida and his art.

You moved to Florida as a toddler?

"Fifty years ago last night, Halloween night 1957, as a 2-year-old."

As a child, how did you connect with the outdoors?

"In the same way that most of the kids in my generation did. We didn't have color television. We didn't have the Internet. We didn't have air conditioning. We went outside to play. I lived next door to a swamp, had an enormous banyan tree in my front yard. I built a five-story treehouse - my dad was in construction, so I had lots of tools. I did a lot of camping. I was very unself-conscious about my love affair with Florida. It seemed very unremarkable at the time."

What's so special about Florida?

"In a word, Florida is home. The world is full of special places. ... What the world needs is people who really appreciate where they are and connect with it."

After 23 years as a photographer at the Gainesville Sun, you left the paper in 2003. What led you to do that?

"I left in order to photograph the best of vanishing natural Florida. I'm doing my best to stay a step ahead of the developers and the hurricanes. It's important to me on a personal level. On my best days, and it doesn't happen very often, it feels sacramental. It feels like an act of spiritual communion to be in nature with my cameras.

"Is that important to the people of Florida? Every serious nature photographer would like to imagine that their photos can connect with people in a meaningful way. The response that I've gotten to my work suggests that pictures can matter. I've had a lot of people literally in tears during my slide show programs. I've seen a lot of people have a really emotional connection ... People want to connect with a place. I'm just holding a mirror up to them to remind them."

When you show your photos and speak, your tone is almost spiritual. Where does that feeling come from?

"I'm trying to channel what it was like to be a kid growing up in Florida with this quiet sense of appreciation. Little John Moran out there. I have recently started talking about imagining that I'm out there with William Bartram, the famed 18th century naturalist who explored Florida. And Timothy Leary, and his heightened state of appreciation for finding bliss in nature."

Your style embraces photo technology, like using flash to illuminate dozens of pairs of alligator eyes at night or using multiple exposures to show several stages of a lunar eclipse in one photo. How would you describe your style?

"My style is driven by my desire to show people Florida in a way they've never seen it. I love to use tools and techniques to create unusual photographs. I have long welcomed the challenge of making pictures that surprise people."

Is there a photo that you would love to get that so far has eluded you?

"Quite a few, actually. Much of my best work kicks around in my head for years before I finally see it through to fruition. Here's the picture that I see in my mind's eye: The picture is a nighttime view of a huge and impressive cypress tree in the middle of the river at Wakulla Springs State Park. The shutter of the camera is open for six hours, pointing north, recording the concentric blur of the stars pinwheeling through the night sky around the North Star. It's a cold night, and a thick blanket of polar smoke hovers over the surface of the water, visible by the light of the rising moon. And the title of the photograph is Under the Spell of Polaris. This is a picture I've been thinking about for years."

We hear about the rough field conditions that some National Geographic photographers experience. Which photo was toughest for you physically?

"I've never been injured or unduly stressed, but a year and a half ago, photographing white pelicans at Upper Captiva (Island), I had a rogue wave come crashing over the back of my boat and drench all of my Nikons. Miraculously, I only lost one camera body. It was $1,800 and I got a check from State Farm a couple of weeks later."

Is there a higher purpose to what you do?

"I feel like I'm on a path that is not necessarily preordained. But I'm the right person at the right time to show people why it matters to value, to respect, to ultimately love where we live. You can no more love a place that you don't know than you can love a person you don't know."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at or (727) 445-4170.

If you go

Meet the artist

The Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Center, 3940 Keystone Road, East Lake, presents an opening reception for "John Moran's Florida: One State, Many Worlds," an exhibit of Moran's Florida nature photography, from 1 to 4 p.m. today. No admission fee. The show runs through Dec. 31. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Call (727) 453-6800.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 22:16:45]

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