The Place and the Time

People who believe that every picture tells a story should meet Mary Atwood. While that adage might be true, there is a certain benefit in having someone behind the lens who knows how to capture the tale. The Jacksonville-based photographer’s passion is evident as she describes both her impetus and the stories behind her latest exhibit, “First Coast Reflections.”

The collection of 27 black-and-white images chronicles various historic landmarks in the Northeast Florida area. The exhibit is currently featured at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, a fitting venue whose own historical significance and natural lighting enhance Atwood’s work. “I look for a story,” Atwood explains, as she guides a writer through the collection of 15” x 20” prints lining the walls. “I look for something in the way these people lived and what they went through.”

Atwood started her endeavor a little over a year ago. A subsequent Art Ventures grant from the Community Foundation helped make the project come to light. “The concept behind doing this project, and the reason I wanted to do it,” Atwood says, “is because I have a deep, abiding love for the history of this area.”

A native of Hixon, Tenn., Atwood’s father was a military photographer who taught her to use a Kodak Brownie when she was a child. The family moved to Jacksonville when she was 10, the same year she was given her first camera, a Polaroid Swinger. By age 13, Atwood had moved on to shooting 35mm prints and a year later was developing the images in her darkroom.

“It’s a passion and something I have always loved,” she says. Shooting only in available light, Atwood uses a Nikon D300 digital camera, taking upwards of 400 shots to get her final image. That attention to detail helped drive her search for historic sites. “The tiniest little thing will set me off searching on the Internet for days about investigating a single detail.”

Atwood hopes the exhibit will focus much-needed attention on these landmarks, which she fears are being forgotten in the media age. “So many of these places are really, really struggling,” she says, citing an experience of trying to venture upstairs at the Kingsley Plantation, but being turned away because the flooring was too weak to support anyone. “Anything I can do with my artwork to get people to just go and visit and maybe, as they are leaving, donate an extra $5, or do something to try to really support these historic treasures.”

Atwood points to one particular image she personally finds “very moving” — a still life of a wood-burning stove taken at the Chesser Island Homestead, on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. “My first thought was, ‘Here we are in the Okefenokee, where it gets blazing hot at the drop of a hat and this woman is raising seven children and cooking for them on a wood-burning stove.’ The sacrifice of that just moved me.” Some images are more playful, such as that of a very uncomfortable-looking sleeping garment from the 19th century. “Can you imagine trying to wear this in St. Augustine?” she marvels. “I can’t, but that was an era when modesty was more important than comfort.”

A work in progress, the exhibit was numbered at 13 when displayed at the Museum of Science & History and 17 prints when featured at JaxPort. The collection is next scheduled for display at the Main Library in July and then moves to Orange Park’s Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts in September. Atwood would like to eventually collect the images in a book. Until then, she plans to continue her creative campaign to shed light on the wealth of local lore and the people behind the tales. “Every single person has contributed to history in some way,” she says. “It may seem small and not really that meaningful until you really step back and look at it.”

Dan Brow

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Mary Atwood’s exhibit, “First Coast Reflections,” is displayed through June 29 at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 101 W. First St., Jacksonville, 356-2992. For more information and to view Atwood’s work, visit