Local fine art photographer Mary Atwood’s new book captures the images and stories of historic North Florida homes
When Jacksonville photographer Mary Atwood visited Dudley Farm in Newberry, Florida, she was transported back to her favorite chilldhood spot —her grandfather’s farm and its log home. In this state of reverie, she captured an image at Dudley Farm that she titled Comfort, and thus began her photographic series of historic homes.
As Atwood would attest, she is prone to the romantic, to finding a narrative within a space or artwork, so she consciously absorbed a lot while photographing spaces. Speaking engagements on her initial series of historic home images, titled First Coast Reflections, which has been widely exhibited both throughout Florida and in Jacksonville’s sister city of Nantes, France, soon became as inspired as the images she spoke about. Atwood was collecting histories as she captured photos.
“People kept telling me that I needed to write down the stories I shared about the houses and the people who live in them,” she says. And so she did. They are in her new book, released by The History Press of Charleston, SC on Nov. 4, 2014, titled Historic Homes of Florida’s First Coast. The book will be sold locally at the Museum of Science and History (MOSH), The BookMark in Neptune Beach and San Marco Bookstore, as well as online through The History Press, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. Jacksonville writer William Weeks provided Atwood with editorial help, and renowned local historian and arts advocate Dr. Wayne Wood wrote the foreword. In a rare move for a traditionally black-and-white press, The History Press printed a full-color cover featuring Atwood’s photographs, as well as a sixteen-page color insert.
Atwood speaks of the book with impassioned respect for the locales she included—twenty-two North Florida historic homes in total that collectively span a timeframe of over two-hundred and fifty years, and all of which are open to the public. There are ninety images in the book, thirty vintage photographs and sixty originals by Atwood. She toured each location with a guide; talking, listening, immersed in the history as she photographed, then followed up with extensive research at historical societies, archives, and libraries to flesh out the stories.
Special approval had to be obtained to shoot at some locations where photography is not normally allowed, and some still prohibited the use of a flash or tripod. Taking hand-held photos at these often dark locations not only required technical know-how, but hours, if not days, of time spent there to plan things like “figuring out which way the windows faced and what time of day would be best in terms of where the light would fall,” Atwood explains.
But it would seem these challenges only served Atwood’s purpose in truly learning and absorbing the stories, the personal histories, of the homes. Included are traditional “Cracker” style houses, Spanish Colonial structures in St. Augustine, and plantation homes such as the well-known Kingsley Plantation. Many are historically significant because of their one-time residents, such as exiled European royalty, writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and musician Frederick Delius, but Atwood shares the stories of lesser-known early settlers of North Florida alongside these.
“It’s not just the houses — but also the people who lived in them. There are many stories of incredible courage, especially those about the women,” Atwood says. “When I cook my dinner in my microwave, in my air-conditioned kitchen, I can’t help but think of those women who loaded their stoves with wood during the dog days of August to cook and bake for their families. Or the French nuns who came to St. Augustine to teach the children of freed slaves at the end of the Civil War. At one point, several of them were actually arrested because they were white women teaching African-American children. Now that is courage!”
Atwood continually cites “courage,” as the underlying theme to both the images and the text. Though she is documenting historical sites, she often composes her photographs to specifically direct a narrative, and convey a mood that she feels is present in the space through its history. “For example, at the Kingsley Plantation,” she says, “the slaves worked under the ‘task system,’ which allowed
them to engage in other money making opportunities once they had completed their assigned task for that day. Since the plantation was in operation while Florida was Spanish territory, the Spanish rules applied, so slaves could purchase their freedom.” The image she created there, titled The Light at the Top of the Stairs, “is meant to be symbolic of the slave’s struggle to earn his or her own freedom,” she explains. “The dark stairs, which I wanted to appear somewhat foreboding, lead up to a white framed window, which I caught at the perfect time of day with the light falling on it, and I wanted to represent hope.”
In this way, Historic Homes of Florida’s First Coast presents Atwood’s poetic take on North Florida’s history and strikes a balance between documentation and fine art. “[The book] is, from my perspective, all about courage… on both a personal and collective basis,” she says, providing an evocative take on our region’s roots. When asked if there is one home in which
she would want to have lived, Atwood answers, “[That] is an easy one: Marjorie [Kinnan Rawlings]’s house. Going there is like a pilgrimage. You truly can feel her spirit there. She was an amazing woman and I so wish I could have known her.”
Article written by Meredith Tousey Matthews