The Everglades' Sweet Light

For photographer Joel McEachern, the chill of a winter dawn is prime time for traipsing through the saw grass in pursuit of The Everglades' Sweet Light

"The Everglades doesn't have a monumental range," McEachern observes, setting up his tripod with his camera aimed east, toward the spot where the sun will soon pop out of the clouds. He snaps a few frames of the shadowy landscape. "A place like Yosemite has a huge scale, which is bigger than life and immediately envelops you. The Everglades doesn't do that. You look at it and it's hard to get anything out of it at first. There are no mountains and valleys; it's just kind of scrubby and so-what. But it grows on you. The Everglades is not a loud, obnoxious person. It's a quiet person that you have to take time to get to know."

McEachern says the park shows itself best in what he calls "the sweet light" of sunrise. "You take pictures in the middle of the day and they're going to come out like a tourist snapshot from Eckerd's one-hour developing," he grumbles. "National Geographic and other magazines send guys down here this time of year to shoot stock photos. And they have equipment I'd kill for, I'll tell you. But most guys get out there after the sun rises, and they just stay out there all day when the light's no good. I guess it's too early for them to go to a bar and get drunk."

Searching the sky, he announces that ibis should be flying overhead any minute. Presently the outline of a flock appears in V formation, black against the paling clouds. The birds are flying low, and as they pass their wings whoosh like the shuffling of a deck of cards.

"They're such ancient beings," marvels McEachern. "When I look at them I see dinosaurs fly." He turns his attention back toward the horizon. The sky is now shades of orange and pink. Spokelike beams of sun jut out from the cloud tops.

"Looks like an image you'd find on a church calendar," the photographer says dismissively. He stands observing the majestic sight with his arms across his chest. But he doesn't bother to take a picture. McEachern will use up some film today out of habit, but he doesn't expect to get any pictures he likes: It's not cold enough.

"The idea is to get a great cold front to come through," he explains. "The cold sweeps the sky of clouds, it cleans up the horizon. When it's cold and foggy, the sun comes up and the basin looks like red cotton.

"For me everything is temperature-sensitive," he goes on. "I usually don't even come out until it's below 55 degrees. When the cold fronts come down, I can get maybe three days out of it -- well, usually one. I had twenty good days last year. I can come down here 25 times and I'm happy to get one image. Sometimes I don't even take the camera out of the bag. If it's not there, it's not there."

As the light comes up, crows canvas the asphalt for roadkill. More birds call to each other in the trees. McEachern steps into the grass to get a close look at some delicate blue flowers, glade lobelia, that grow among the brush.

"You can't contrive an environmental situation," he says, holding a petal between his fingers. "When you're working out of an environmental ethic, you want the place to be more important than you. It's a handicap I happen to be very comfortable with. My photography is a celebration of a place."

"This guy's gone. I suspect since he was near a marina, he was poisoned."
McEachern stands before Lone Dancer with Moon, one of the photos that hangs in the back room at Pitman Photo, a camera store and lab in Kendall. Twenty-one of his photos are on display here, along with works by Claudine Laabs and Tony Arruza, two other photographers who shoot frequently in the Everglades.

The dancer in McEachern's photo is a red mangrove tree whose shape resembles that of a man skipping jubilantly on the surface of a pond, arms extended. The tree stands alone, except for a crescent moon that shines behind it in the distance. The sky and water merge, bathing the scene in brilliant shades of midnight blue.

In 1993 the photo won McEachern a place in the prestigious Natural World competition and exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. On five occasions one of McEachern's pieces has been among the 60 selected from the hundreds of entries (up to 2000) the museum receives each year.

"We're looking for a new way of looking at nature, something different," says Laura Beattie, coordinator of the competition. "Besides technical ability and composition, it really has to say something about the natural world. Something that will give insight into what's out there."

McEachern's subtle color photographs have an ethereal quality that gives them the look of painted canvases: a field of red cypress trees bathed in a misty sepia glow; a trio of spoonbills shadowed in the golden morning light like teenagers on a street corner. In one photo a heron's nest is reflected in the water in a vista shaded an exquisite pale blue. In another the sky is marbled pale pink, orange, and red as the sun comes up between a row of trees and a mountain of clouds.

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