An interview with photographer JOHN MORAN
One last shot at beauty
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 1999
Q: You've talked about trying to imagine what Florida was like when the first European settlers came. What is it about that idea that interests you?
Q: Do you think that looking backward in time can give us some idea about what to do as we look forward?
A: I would hope so. It's so hard, though. Most people here have come from someplace else. We need a constituency of people who love Florida on its own terms and for its own intrinsic worth instead of treating it as a mistress to be used and abused and discarded. It's ironic that in the same state that has the nation's oldest continuously occupied European settlement -- St. Augustine -- we have a populace that was largely born someplace else and is struggling to get a grip on what it means to have a relationship with the real Florida.
Q: Is that what you are trying to document? Real Florida? Or are you photographing Florida as you wish it were?
A: In a sense I photograph Florida as it is every day for the Gainesville Sun; it's my job to be the visual historian for the community. I do nature photography to document that which is fast disappearing in Florida. I also do it just for the experience of being out there chasing the light and probing the wilderness experience that still awaits us if we know where to look for it.
What you see in my nature photographs is the reality that I choose to show. I'm always careful as I look through the view finder that there aren't any power poles off in the distant background, or if I'm on water that I can't see a dock or a boat or a streetlight or beer can. Unfortunately, I spend a fair amount of energy recomposing my photographs to exclude those extraneous elements. So in many ways my photographs are something of a lie.
Q: Can you give an example?
Q: Which of your pictures shows something you weren't looking for that day?
A: One that comes to mind is the picture of the twin palms with the high water on Paynes Prairie State Preserve. I remember leaving work late one day last August and just immediately sensing a clarity to the light and an intensity to the clouds developing. And I hopped in my car and sped south to Paynes Prairie, and it was late afternoon, golden light, and to the east were these incredible thunderheads that were building up. Then I saw these twin palm trees. I practically fell out of my car in my rush to set up my camera there on the side of the road, right next to a no-parking sign. I just had to get that picture before the light changed and the clouds changed. It was a wonderfully serendipitous moment.
When it comes to nature photography, I tend not to be focused so much on the product as the process. Even if I took pictures in which I had forgotten to put film in the camera, it wouldn't necessarily be a wasted day for me. It's kind of like having the right attitude about going fishing. You know, it's more about the communion with just being outdoors and the extraordinary place that Florida is.
Q: Fortunately for us, you usually remember your film.
A: I usually do, yeah. Though sometimes I'll screw up and double-expose a roll of film, which is a real bummer.
Q: Being in nature can have a downside. Has anything ever bitten you or threatened you out there?
A: No. You know, people talk to me about alligators, and certainly they are the toothsome symbol of the real Florida, but I do not feel threatened by alligators. I rather like them. I want to portray them in a favorable light. They're just these extraordinary lumbering leviathans from prehistory that are just absolutely captivating.
Q: If you had happened to become a photographer somewhere else -- in Georgia or Alabama or Arkansas -- do you think you would have enjoyed the work as much as you do Florida?
A: Who can say? Perhaps I could have been happy somewhere else. My photography is all about celebrating the local, about being in love with where you are. I have no desire to see the world; there's so much within 100 miles here that I still haven't seen and never will see, and I'm happy about that. It fills me up so much to know that there's just a world of incredible natural experiences out there awaiting me. And yet I love going to the same places again and again and again. I go the Ichetucknee River each year on my birthday in May. I've done that for I think 16 years now.
Q: What do you do there?
A: I have a little ritual in which I go to the wishing tree, as I call it. It's this beautiful live oak tree that reaches out over one of the side springs, and I climb to the top of this tree each year on the 17th of May and just ponder the gifts of the planet. I'm just standing up there and, God, it's just incredible. I've actually arranged for my ashes to be scattered there on the birthday following my demise -- for my family to go out there and scatter my ashes and have a party.
Q: Do you think you'll have an Ichetucknee to enjoy when you're 82?
A: The river, I think, will be there. But I'm concerned about the kind of shape it will be in, and about the experience of the people who go there. The springwater of Florida, basically, is rainwater. A concern for the Ichetucknee is it drains an area that's becoming increasingly inhabited by refugees from South Florida -- by people from Pinellas County who see beautiful pictures of springs in their newspaper and think, hmmm, this is looking pretty tempting.
There was an article recently in the National Geographic on the springs of Florida -- a stunning piece. And I have every confidence in the coming years I'll be meeting people from everywhere from St. Petersburg, Fla., to St. Petersburg, Russia, who saw these beautiful photographs and who have chosen to relocate to North Florida as a consequence. But, well, there it is.