Interview Picture

The Inherent Spirit in the Land: A Conversation with Jeff Ripple - 2007-08-01

Interviewer: Jeremy Jones
Interviewee: Jeff Ripple

Florida landscape photographer and naturalist, Jeff Ripple and I both grew up in Florida—he in the wild southwest and me in the manicured, overly landscaped southeast. As an expatriate Floridian, I am always eager to discuss the beauty and nuances of my home state, the tangle of scrub and swamp and woods that is always in jeopardy of the developer’s heavy hand.

Ripple, uses a Wisner 4X5 wooden field camera and large-format transparency film to “bring together the dynamic elements of a powerful composition, shifting light, varied textures, the sometimes unpredictable effects of long film exposures, and the inherent spirit in the landscape that inspired [him] to make the photograph in the first place.”

Ripple’s photographs pop and crackle with vivid detail. The wind blows and water ripples. Colors shift and breathe. The subtleties connect the viewer directly with the subject matter. And when the landscape captured in a photograph is in jeopardy of being mowed down, dug out, or filled in, those very same details work like spurs to compel us to reach out and protect the land. This is one of the great beauties of Ripple’s work.

Ripple’s photographs and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Outdoor Explorer, and many other magazines and field guides. In the past fifteen years, he has published eight books, including most recently DAY PADDLING FLORIDA’S BIG CYPRRESS SWAMP AND 10,000 ISLANDS (Countryman Press, 2004).

We began our conversation discussing the land for which we both share a deep love.

Ripple: There is tremendous diversity in the Big Cypress Swamp and Ten Thousand Islands region of southwest Florida, in the landscape and its inhabitants, and with any landscape, there is additional diversity and changes with season. I am inspired daily by this place as an artist, and I never grow tired of looking at it. Perhaps the water level in one place will be different from one day to the next, drawing hundreds of wading birds, or the birds discover a new roost, or there is a particularly dramatic cloud formation or light display over a favorite swath of marsh or group of tree islands. I learned to photograph here more than twenty years ago, I got my start as a natural historian here, and I am learning to paint again here. I consider Big Cypress and the Ten Thousand Islands my spiritual center.

Jones: In what ways are writing and photography similar?

Ripple: Photography is in so many ways easier for me than writing. I am a visual person. I have to form visual images in my head before I can communicate them effectively in words, either verbally or on paper. They are similar in that they demand careful composition and technical expertise, require immense concentration, should both communicate an idea and be emotive. They are both powerful means of expression that can do great good for humanity and tremendous harm as well. In neither medium do I feel completely proficient or imagine that I have reached a plateau; I know I have much more to learn and accomplish.

Jones: What does photography allow you to do that writing doesn't?

Ripple: Photography does not force me to translate the culmination of my imagination and interpretation of a scene into words, or perhaps more precisely, because photography is more "comfortable" for me, the depiction of a scene into a photograph does not feel like a "translation." Painting for me is more difficult than photography, but then working with the large format was very difficult at the beginning. I suppose painting is more like writing in that interpretation of the scene is not so direct. With a camera once I have made the creative decisions, I have the image on film. Of course there is the printing aspect, which adds new levels of creativity and interpretation, much like painting and writing. With the painting, there is no initial "capture" of the scene except in what is created through the passage of the image through my brain to my hands and brush.
As with writing, that initial effort is often unsatisfactory and only becomes beautiful after time and revision. Painting is still unfamiliar to me, so the technical aspects slow my process and interfere with the creativity; it is not a smooth, natural flow yet.

Jones: If you could fix our native state, Florida, where would you start?

Ripple: It's hard to decide where to begin saving a place like Florida where development is so rampant and logical, careful planning for a sustainable human population that is in balance with the needs of the environment is grounds for death threats and/or is hostage to the political process. I guess I would have to start in southwest Florida. The first step would be to significantly slow the pace of development or stop it altogether.
Southwest Florida desperately needs to reassess its rate of population growth and how it can provide adequately in terms of infrastructure and basic services. Next, come up with a plan for sustainable living (or if valid ideas currently exist in each county's comprehensive plan, start implementing them) that balances human needs equally with the needs of a healthy environment. Provide more opportunities for a network of locally grown foods and locally produced goods to foster a sense of community, reduce pollution and energy consumption, and give people a concrete example of how a healthy environment can positively affect them on a personal level. Increase environmental education opportunities not only in the schools, but as adult outreach programs as well. Restore damaged environmental areas and uphold rigorous standards for clean air, soil, and water.