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HomeWest Palm Beach, FLEyes Wide Open with Photographer Mac Stone

Eyes Wide Open with Photographer Mac Stone

Photographer Mac Stone’s images of wetlands and swamps—such as this snap of Lake Russell—draw attention to the importance of Everglades conservation efforts. Photography by Mac Stone
Photographer Mac Stone’s images of wetlands and swamps—such as this snap of Lake Russell—draw attention to the importance of Everglades conservation efforts. Photography by Mac Stone

Humidity hangs above still, dark water, where razor-edged grass sways beneath a relentless sun and ancient cypress with knobby knees reach toward a star-filled night. An insect’s buzz precedes its bite and the watery landscape hides creatures that slither, swim, flutter, and—most worrisome of all—chomp. 

Mac Stone. Photo by Zach Steinhauser
Mac Stone. Photo by Zach Steinhauser

This mysterious scene feels far removed from the developed regions of Palm Beach County, with its sandy beaches, luxurious homes, and inviting shops, restaurants, and other spots for vacationers. And yet, the solid ground of these contemporary places is lapped by an ancient swamp that has been forced to retreat for more than a hundred years. 

It wasn’t malicious intent that diminished the footprint of Florida’s wetlands, says Mac Stone, a natural history photojournalist who counts publications such as National Geographic among his credits. Born in Gainesville and currently a South Carolina resident, Stone first discovered the Everglades on a family paddling trip as a teenager. He returned 10 years later, working as a field biologist for the National Audubon Society. 

Stone travels the United States and the globe covering conservation issues, particularly those regarding wetlands and swamps. He’s been photographing the Everglades for more than 10 years, creating images of unexpected importance. “Conventional wisdom was that wetlands were bad, or at least useless,” he says. “Now we are trying to undo that.”

While traveling by airboat with Mack’s Fish Camp, Stone used an underwater housing to show what the “River of Grass” looks like beneath the surface
While traveling by airboat with Mack’s Fish Camp, Stone used an underwater housing to show what the “River of Grass” looks like beneath the surface.

By “we” Stone means the scientists, educators, and advocates who are striving to restore some of the natural flow of these living and life-giving waters, a charge for the last 30 years of The Everglades Foundation. This nonprofit organization is planning to complete its $75 million endowment campaign, ForEverglades, by the end of 2024; it has already raised $60 million. The goal of the campaign is to ensure the future financial stability of the foundation, which is currently involved in 68 restoration projects including the building of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Upon completion, the EAA Reservoir and its stormwater treatment area will be larger than the island of Manhattan at a combined 17,000 acres. In tandem with other restoration projects, the EAA Reservoir and the stormwater treatment area will reduce Lake Okeechobee’s polluted discharges into east and west coast estuaries by 55 percent and send 120 billion gallons of clean freshwater south every year. 

For his part, Stone has provided 130 images to be published in a limited-edition book, titled ForEverglades, that will be presented to top benefactors of the campaign. Working to produce the book with Kathy Moran and David Griffin, past photography and design experts with National Geographic and other publications, Stone says his goal was to “take people to places they’ve never been.” 

Stone used acrylic panels lit by strobes as a background to achieve a high-key look and bring full focus to the lotuses
Stone used acrylic panels lit by strobes as a background to achieve a high-key look and bring full focus to the lotuses.

That sentiment is key to successful conservation efforts, notes Marshall Field V, chairman of the endowment campaign and immediate past chairman of The Everglades Foundation’s board of directors. “Picturing the earth without certain places in it is grim,” he says. “If [our unique places] go away, the planet may go away with it.”

Stone agreed to share select images from his book with readers of Palm Beach Illustrated as an introduction of sorts to a part of their home that they haven’t met yet—or may never meet. 

“You can come to love a place or an ecosystem or wildlife in many different ways,” Stone says. “I think the key is to rally everybody to say, ‘Look at this system. This is home.’”

This nighttime photo of cypress trees in Lake Russell offers a different view of the Everglades’ headwaters
This nighttime photo of cypress trees in Lake Russell offers a different view of the Everglades’ headwaters.

In fact, the Everglades and its surrounding areas play an important role in South Florida. Offering space for recreation such as fishing, hiking, biking, snorkeling, and boating, the Everglades is also the source of drinking water for more than 8 million Floridians. It is home to flora and fauna found nowhere else on the planet.

“We think of ourselves as being connected to an ecosystem rather than part of it,” Stone says. He goes on to explain that conservation isn’t about stopping development but rather working with it to protect the elements that in turn make the area a desirable and sustainable place to live, as well as an economic boon to a state that heavily relies on and promotes tourism tied to its natural resources. 

To snap this photo of a Florida panther in Corkscrew Swamp, Stone employed a camera trap triggered by motion
To snap this photo of a Florida panther in Corkscrew Swamp, Stone employed a camera trap triggered by motion.

Stone says his photographic endeavors have contributed to the scientific understanding of this area; as an example, he cites several summer months spent trying to photograph a giant sphinx moth, believed to be the sole pollinator of the endangered ghost orchid. Stone perched his camera 50 feet up a cypress tree to capture the precise moment of pollination. What did he find?

The moth appeared to be “robbing the nectar instead of providing any benefit to the flower,” Stone notes, clarifying that this hypothesis is still in need of more rigorous testing and evidence. “This information was new to science, and, to me, the perfect embodiment of how the camera has become the vehicle [of discovery].”

An adult and baby alligator peek out of the waters of Corkscrew Swamp in the western portion of the Everglades
An adult and baby alligator peek out of the waters of Corkscrew Swamp in the western portion of the Everglades.

His process, in most cases, is anything but a quick snapshot. In fact, Stone often invests weeks or more orchestrating the tools to create an image and then sitting in wait for the right opportunity. Sometimes that means standing waist- or neck-deep in swamp waters, operating a drone or angling a flashlight to illuminate a cypress tree against a night sky—only to be photobombed by a SpaceX rocket, in what seems to be the perfect juxtaposition of Mother Nature and human nature. 

“All of a sudden on the horizon, this fireball is erupting, and it looks like a meteor,” Stone recalls. “My assistant was so freaked out—he thought the world was ending. But I’m just shooting through the entire thing asking myself, ‘God, what is this?’” 

Alligators sunbathe on the sand as they dip in and out of the waters of Fisheating Creek, which flows into Lake Okeechobee
Alligators sunbathe on the sand as they dip in and out of the waters of Fisheating Creek, which flows into Lake Okeechobee.

“Mac uses his photographs to connect people,” says Jodi Mailander Farrell, vice president of development for The Everglades Foundation. “It’s hard to appreciate the Everglades if you’ve never been there, and you don’t support what you don’t know. His photos help us create the connection.”

Shooting with a drone in Blue Cypress Lake, Stone caught this image of a SpaceX rocket launch.
Shooting with a drone in Blue Cypress Lake, Stone caught this image of a SpaceX rocket launch.

As for Stone, he says he wants people to look at his work and ask questions: What does this look like? What does this feel like?

“All people need is a handshake or an introduction to the Everglades,” he says. “It gives them permission to fall in love with it too.” 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

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