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

"He has captured the light and the essence of the Everglades," comments Kay Hale, director of the library at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which has hung two McEachern exhibitions. "I just wish he had more work to show."

McEachern admits he is not a prolific photographer, a fact he blames on the glut of images of the local landscape, which he says makes it more difficult to do something that stands out. "Color photography is a curse, especially here in South Florida, because color is so associated with postcards," he observes. "Florida is very aware of its image, and certain subjects will discredit you in the eyes of critical viewers. Like sunsets. Or alligators. I don't want my work to be identified as postcard work."

One photographer who has transcended that cliche in the public's eye is Clyde Butcher, who has acquired a reputation as "the Ansel Adams of the Everglades" for the dramatic black-and-white landscapes he captures with a large-format camera. The monumental romanticism of Butcher's photos is similar to that of the work of Adams, who died in 1984 after a life spent photographing the American West. A charismatic figure with his own gallery on the Tamiami Trail, Butcher has been the focus of much media hype in recent years, including a book written by Miami Herald writers Tom Shroder and John Barry in 1995.

Butcher takes most of his pictures in Big Cypress Preserve. He did not photograph Everglades National Park until last summer, when he was commissioned to do so for a calendar honoring the park's 50th anniversary this year. Rick Cook, the public affairs officer for the park who escorted Butcher around and granted him special access to isolated areas, has never heard of Joel McEachern.

McEachern, who refers to Butcher as "Grizzly Adams," says he doesn't begrudge him his success, but he wishes people would take notice of other photographers working in the Everglades. He has written to park superintendent Richard Ring suggesting that he initiate a photographer-in-residence program and exhibit the work of local photographers. Rick Cook says that the park, which mounted a Butcher show in December, has no current plans for future exhibitions.

"Butcher's wild-man media image is exploitable," says McEachern. "But there are regular people here, too. You have to create a program that involves and engages people."

He takes a sheet of paper from a tray attached to the wall beneath his photos. It is a one-page essay he has written, called "The Great Everglades," which urges visitors to go down and experience the "vast islanded pond" for themselves. On the back he has typed the titles of the works on display. Unlike his co-exhibitors, however, McEachern provides no price list. "If they want to buy one, they can call me and we'll talk about it," he says testily. "I'd rather they read the essay than look at my prices."

McEachern has received some calls but made no sales. "Technical questions," he says. "They want to know how I got a certain light. They ask, 'What film did you use? Where did you stand when you took that picture?' Maybe I should make a map with the footprints marked on it."

Driving south on U.S. 1 near Homestead, McEachern turns off onto a dirt road. On either side migrant workers are picking beans in the fields. He points out the old stucco house where his aunt used to live, frowns at the chainlink barriers and high brick walls that have arisen around the neighboring houses in the days since he visited here as a child, and laments the loss of the ornate stone fences people used to build more for decoration than for protection.

In a sense McEachern, who is divorced and has a son, has built a similar wall around the Miami of his youth. An only child, he remembers growing up roaming what he describes as a gentle city, and searching for parts for his 1957 Chevrolet "shaker" in Brownsville and Overtown, parts of town he says he can't imagine exploring today. After that the stories he tells about his life in Miami are dominated by unpleasant experiences tinged with violence -- run-ins with thieves and degenerates in the late Seventies while on a survey crew documenting what was to become the Art Deco District, an impromptu brush with the River Cops murders while taking pictures downtown, getting kicked out of Bill Baggs State Park one night by a security guard who was later arrested for running a drug operation while on duty.

"It's hard for me to talk about Miami, because it's nowhere near the Miami I grew up with," he sighs. "You look at the bars on the windows and the burglar alarm decals, and they signify the changes in this area. Not just changes on the outside, but changes on the inside, too."

Not long after the incident at Bill Baggs, McEachern and some friends decided to make a photographic trek to the Everglades. He'd been there only once before, on a picnic with his parents when he was ten. ("That day it was about 128 degrees out there, and as it happened the bugs were also having a picnic," he recalls. "I said to myself, 'Why would anyone want to come here?'") They met late at night at a Denny's on Bird Road, drove all the way through Everglades National Park, and reached Florida Bay at dawn.

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