Last month, we released award-winning photographer Mac Stone’s Everglades: America’s Wetland. Over the past few weeks, Stone has been traveling all over Florida speaking about his work in the Everglades and revealing behind-the-scenes footage of what it’s like to photograph America’s largest subtropical wilderness. Stone recently placed as a finalist in BBC’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and he has also been awarded the inaugural Save Our Seas Foundation Marine Conservation Grant to travel to South Africa this month on an international conservation initiative. We had the chance to ask the busy photographer about how he began photographing the Everglades, and why America’s wetland is so important to him.
How did you first become interested in photography?
I was always captivated by imagery, hoarding stacks of National Geographic magazines in my room as a child. It wasn’t until high school when I found my dad’s old Minolta film body in his closet that I began to tell my own stories with images. I took it everywhere, lugging the heavy metal body to the wildernesses around my home in Gainesville, Florida. It became my proof of life, providing hard evidence and tangible memories that I was seeing and experiencing incredible things. Not long after my first rolls of film, the roles reversed, and it was the camera that was lugging my heavy frame around, becoming the very reason to explore, pushing me to create images that truly captured the moments I was living in the backwoods of Florida.
Tell us about the first time you visited the Everglades and what has kept drawing you back.
My dad and I always spent spring break together when I was in school. We’d put our finger on the map and choose an adventure that would last a week. When I was 15 years old, we picked the Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park. I had never seen anything like it; dolphins, ospreys, wading birds by the hundreds, and thunderstorms that ripped across the wilderness as far as the eye could see. My next visit to the Everglades was ten years later, and with a camera in tow, I was jumping out of a helicopter into the most remote area of the park. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that first day back, Everglades: America’s Wetland was born. What captivated me in high school is the same subtropical energy that today still lures me deeper and deeper into the heart of this majestic part of the country. The Everglades rebukes familiarity even to the most seasoned explorer. It is true unyielding wilderness that despite mankind’s best efforts refuses to be tamed, conquered, or completely understood.
The shots in Everglades are exquisite. What was one of the most difficult shots you took for this book?
Many of the images found in the book required months of planning; some were even the result of years of trial and error. One of the most difficult photographs to take was the Everglades Snail Kite on the cover of the book. I spent months coordinating with Fish and Wildlife Commission biologists to obtain permission to photograph the federally endangered bird in a style that hadn’t been attempted before. I strategized a way to get within inches of the iconic raptor swooping down to pick up its sole source of food, the apple snail, using a remote-triggered camera. I spent ten days in 12-hour intervals waist deep in an area known for its massive alligators beneath the South Florida sun for that one magic moment when all the elements aligned.
You must have so many shots to choose from after a trip out to the Everglades. How did you decide which photos to include in this book?
I have tens of thousands of images from the Everglades. As photographers often say, making the photographs is the easy part; the hard part is editing them into a small, concise collection. When I started laying out the book, I wanted it to flow just like the River of Grass flows from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. I knew I had to include certain keystone species as well as the iconic views that define the landscape. When compiling the images, I focused on the vignettes that would make the viewer stay a little longer on the page, images that would illicit—if even for a brief moment—a visceral response with the reader. At 304 pages it was a difficult task. I really could have used another 300.
Is there a photo you wish you could have taken for this book but you weren’t able to get?
The creative mind is never satisfied. I can think of at least twenty images that I would have liked to include in the book, and that number grows every time I flip through the pages. However, this is why I fell in love with the Everglades. The more you know and the more you see, the more you realize you’re only scratching the surface of what’s to be discovered there. I have spent an obsessive amount of time photographing the various landscapes underwater, on foot, in boats, in planes, in helicopters, at dusk, at dawn, and in lightning storms, and yet there are still moments that I’m dying to see through my camera.
In all the time you’ve spent in the Everglades, what is the most remarkable thing you’ve seen?
One of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in the Everglades, and there are several competing for this spot, was when I hiked out to a remote area in Big Cypress National Preserve during the dry season. I was looking for what’s known as gator holes, depressed areas where alligators congregate to stay wet when water is limited. What I found was incredible. In the middle of a cypress slough, hundreds of alligators gathered in less than a foot of water. The water danced from millions of fish tonguing the oxygen at the surface. They were locked in a deathtrap. Before I could gather my thoughts, alligators started leaping out of the water and crashing down with their jaws agape. Emerging victoriously in muddy and scaly mire, they threw their heads back and chomped down on catfish. This is a behavior rarely seen or photographed, and I had front row seats for over an hour.
What are some of your other favorite ecosystems or landscapes to photograph?
There are two ecosystems that I continually return to photograph. Cypress domes are one of the most spectacular surprises of the Everglades system. Imagine a cathedral of furrowed bark where air plants and hundreds of colorful orchids cling to every inch of organic real estate. Under your feet lemon bacopa plants crunch and release a zesty fragrance in the air while a chorus of tree frogs chirps, signaling an afternoon storm. There is nothing quite like it anywhere. The other ecosystem is underwater, snorkeling around submerged mangrove prop roots. Sponges and soft corals with neon colors cover the roots while snappers, tarpon, sharks, and snook swim freely. What’s so striking is the seemingly homogenous landscape of greenery above the water, but when you put your mask underwater, it’s an entirely different world exploding with life.
What are you working on next?
I’m always working on several different projects at once. In the long term I’m compiling stories and images from America’s swamps, in an effort to change public opinion about our country’s bottomlands. It’s time that we start regarding these habitats not as second class ecosystems, but as national treasures that purify our drinking water, provide refuge to an incredible array of wildlife, and form the foundation of our natural and southern heritage. In the shorter term, I’ve been selected out of an international pool of photographers to represent the United States as a recipient of the coveted Marine Conservation Photography Grant with the Save Our Seas Foundation. I’ll be working with National Geographic and SOSF to shoot on assignment for three weeks regarding a major conservation initiative.
Do you have one sentence of advice for beginner photographers?
Get outside in your hometown and create local adventures with the highest anecdotal return; great images will blossom from experiences in the place that’s closest to your heart.