The Everglades' Sweet Light

Just after sunrise on the last day of the year, gangs of squawking turkey vultures and clowning crows are already working for food in the Royal Palm Hammock parking lot and the adjacent picnic area. A couple of small alligators cruise slowly through the water in a marshy pond; nearby more gators float immobile in the grass at water's edge, along with herons, ibis, great egrets, and other wading birds, all silently hunting. The trees are replete with perched anhingas, whose curved wings hunch out around them like vampires' velvet capes.

The basin's quiet is pierced by the growls of two alligators sparring somewhere in the grass. Then another, softer sound can be heard: a repeated clicking -- katydids? -- and an occasional whirring that could be the humming of a swarm of wasps. But the noise emanates from the paved promenade abutting the pond, where about twenty people -- nearly all of them men -- are clustered. Most are dressed like British envoys to colonial Africa: crisp khaki pants and shirts, safari vests with net compartments and deep pockets. At their feet sit bulging bags stuffed with state-of-the-art gear. They are amateur photographers, and they have gathered here for Royal Palm's morning photo op. Any activity around the pond -- an alligator thrashing about as it catches a fish, the silent appearance of a great egret -- causes the click-and-whir to intensify, bazookalike telephoto lenses swiveling almost in unison.

Royal Palm Hammock is the most popular spot among visitors to Everglades National Park. Just a few miles from the Main Visitor Center and about an hour's drive from downtown Miami, the hammock is home to a reliably awesome variety of Everglades species. It also has bathrooms, a bookstore, and a soda machine. For these Sunday photographers, it's the place to bag the big game without actually venturing into the bush.

But with his ruffled gray hair and droopy mustache, faded work shirt and baggy jeans, Joel McEachern stands conspicuously apart from the snappy crew. He holds his banged-up Canon at his side, with a purple terry-cloth sweatband wrapped around the 300mm lens. "Photographers and alligators are kind of alike -- they both hang around ponds," he sniffs, eyeing the throng. He's already done taking pictures for the day, having arisen at 4:00 a.m. to drive to the park from his home in Miami Springs to catch the sun rising over the saw grass.

McEachern, age 46, has been photographing all over the Everglades for fourteen winters, but he doesn't take pictures at Royal Palm. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, he'll tell you. He has just come by on his way home this morning to have a look at the feeding birds -- and at his competition. Like many other photographers obsessed with the area's primordial beauty and diverse wildlife, McEachern considers himself both an artist and a naturalist, and he sees his work as a way of creating awareness of the beauty of the Everglades' precarious ecosystem and the need to preserve it. But he'd also like to make some money while he's at it.

Primarily self-taught -- he majored in psychology at FIU but says he soon realized he wasn't emotionally equipped to help others with their problems -- McEachern works only in color; he dismisses black and white as "too intellectual." He submits his pictures to photo competitions and to magazines like Wilderness, Sea Kayaker, and Tropical Trails. Some of his photos have been published, some featured in national exhibitions, but the big assignments have eluded him. So far the endeavor hasn't brought in a lot of cash. Though he makes his living these days writing press releases for artists and art-related companies, he hasn't proven very good at promoting himself. "I guess I haven't been paying that much attention to marketing," he says. "I've been too busy trying to photograph."

In the murky light before sunrise, Everglades National Park's main road is covered with fog. "The subtlety of the Everglades is so hard to capture," McEachern says, gesturing toward the shadowed landscape that stretches away endlessly from the two lanes of asphalt. "There are only so many lays to this land: It's either very open or very compressed, and then you're shooting into a hole. The exposure just drives you crazy. That's why so may people do species work here. They do the gators, they do the birds, they do the overhead shot from a plane. But to get the feeling of the place is really, really hard."

McEachern drives past Royal Palm and woody Rock Reef Pass, past stands of lonely pines. Then he reaches a spot where the pines converge with palms and cypress. Fog has settled over the area, and the clumps of trees are islands in a sea of clouds. "Places assume a kind of identity and character, and you become attached to them like people," he muses, looking for a good place to stop. "You have your favorite spots."

He eases his pickup onto the shoulder. Even at this early hour there's traffic; a van hauling a boat behind it clamors past, followed by several more cars. The air is chilly, the flat land achingly still as the glow of the sun begins to light the up the cumulus fortress that protects the horizon.

"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.

"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.

"The first impression was that there was a sense of rightness about it," McEachern remembers. "We felt like little kids in big bodies. We drove up, and all the little ponds were full of birds. Things work in the natural world. You don't have masses of humanity bumping and grinding against each other, fighting for whatever they're fighting for that day."

Until that time his forays into photography had all been urban-oriented, but the Everglades kept drawing him back: It was his way, he discovered, to escape from Miami. "I realized that a lot of the joy was gone from my relationship with the city," he says. "I got pushed out. I was tired of being a lightning rod for finding out the difference between good and evil. The Everglades gives you a perspective on life because of the enormity of it: It's just that much bigger than you."

He considered moving down south but has so far continued to commute from Miami Springs. "It would be nice to live in a place that means so much to me, but there are other concerns," he says, explaining that since he doesn't do his own processing or printing, he likes to have easy access to commercial labs. He also has a studio near FIU's main campus, on SW 107th Avenue.

By now he has reached the park. He enters the new visitors' center, which opened in December to replace the building that was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew. Inside, the anniversary calendar featuring Clyde Butcher is for sale in the gift shop. McEachern rolls his eyes at the sales display, then takes a few minutes to look over the exhibition of Butcher's photographs. He points out some that he likes but ultimately deems the exhibit repetitive.

"I admire his effort. I just don't understand the appeal of his work," McEachern comments. "Sometimes black and white is the right thing, but in terms of the natural world, I don't want to lose all the color just to have form. It seems kind of odd to roll back time just for the sake of creating art. It's a greater challenge to try to find ways to say these important things in the full color spectrum."

Back in his pickup, McEachern drives slowly down the main road, pointing out favorite trees and the alligator tracks through the grass and expounding on the history of the Glades. He mentions Daniel Beard, a field biologist who in 1938 wrote a report for the Everglades National Park Project, which was considering whether the area should be adopted into the park system. A photocopy of Beard's work is among the many Everglades texts McEachern keeps in his files at home. "Back then the Glades were wetter than they are now, and orchids abounded," he recounts dreamily. "It must of been a hell of a sight.

"Beard was so taken by the park that he described it as a place where you can find yourself," he adds as heads back toward Florida City. "I think that's true for everyone."

Joel McEachern's photographs of the Everglades are on display at Pitman Photo, 8650 SW 132nd St, until February 5. Call 256-9558 for more information.


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