Curator Tim Wride was surprised when he first visited the Florida Everglades a few years ago. He’d expected a muddy swamp crawling with alligators but instead found a vast ecosystem that unfolded quietly from pine forests to lush grasslands to deep blue lagoons.
“It’s not like hiking Yosemite or Yellowstone; it’s more like being in the desert where the changes are very subtle,” he said recently in conversation with Hyperallergic about the new exhibition, Imaging Eden, at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. “The more time you give the landscape the bigger the reward. For me it’s become a lovely refuge.”
Wride began noticing that most people he talked with held a similarly monolithic view of the Everglades, an ecosystem that occupies two-thirds of Florida but has been shrouded in mystery for years. “The odd thing is that it’s so unknown even by people who live here, even though all their drinking water comes from it,” he said.
That lack of public knowledge about the land — bolstered by the fact that it was never officially photographed before the 20th century — has proved detrimental to its environment. “In the past, people viewed it as simply blank land that was there to be drained and put to use to allow the population to grow,” Wride explained.
Slowly but surely, photographers like Walker Evans, Eliot Porter, and Clyde Butcher began entering the Everglades and photographing its untold beauty. Finally in 2000, after its waterways had been almost irreversibly damaged, Congress passed one of the largest-ever environmental restoration projects to revive its wetlands — a $12 billion project still being carried out today.
Yet the old myth still remains, and it’s partly to dispel it that Wride has organized the show, which looks at the region through the camera’s eye. It includes images by the aforementioned photographers, as well as Marion Post Wolcott, James Balog, Mary Peck, and, more recently, Bryan Wilson, Adam Nadel, and Lisa Elmaleh.
Wride also commissioned four works from five photographers who had never previously experienced the Everglades: Bert Teunissen, Gerald Slota, Jungjin Lee, and collaborators Jim Goldberg and Jordan Stein. “The commissions really grew out of the tradition of Mr. Norton when he was building his collection and the museum. He was always buying art of his time, and it’s really his tradition that we’re upholding,” Wride said.
He hopes the exhibition will encourage a deeper public understanding of the habitat that will help further its preservation. It might even inspire people to come down and check it out themselves. “Once you’re hooked, you’re somewhat rabid about the place,” he said.
Imaging Eden continues at the Norton Museum (1451 S. Olive Avenue, West Palm Beach, Florida) through July 12.