by Steve Dollar | May 14, 2024

In Focus: Photographer Benjamin Dimmitt’s Lifelong Affair with Chassahowitzka

Florida photographer Benjamin Dimmitt captures the drastically changing landscape of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, bringing a new perspective to Central Florida conservation.

Enchanted Bend, 2004. Photography by Benjamin Dimmitt.

Gulf Coast native and photographer Benjamin Dimmitt’s formidable eye has guided his career to capturing spellbinding visions of the natural world. His latest project brings him full circle, back to the swampy Central Florida terrain that first inspired him. “An Unflinching Look: Elegy for Wetlands” (University of Georgia Press, $34.95) reveals a lifelong romance with the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles north of Tampa, with photographs that span 35 years. It also documents a tragedy. 

“When Benjamin Dimmitt fell in love with the Chassahowitzka, he never guessed it would one day break his heart,” North Florida author and naturalist Susan Cerulean writes in one of the book’s introductory essays. Shooting with a vintage Hasselblad medium format camera and also with a 1980 Nikon F2–a 35mm camera–Dimmitt juxtaposes photographs of the same sites taken in different decades to capture the startling decline of an Edenic ecosystem amid rising sea levels, the influx of salt water and other environmental woes brought on by climate change and secondary factors. Flamingo caught up with Dimmitt for a recent conversation from his home in Asheville, N.C., where he talked about his Florida roots, the evolution of his work and his lifelong passion for the Chassahowitzka. 

Especially if I’m doing this project of the dying swamp, I should make my subject look its best. I don’t know how to take ugly photographs. It’s not something I really want to learn.
— Benjamin Dimmitt

How early on were you drawn to photography? 

That came on very early. We lived on the bay in Clearwater on a bluff. At the bottom of the bluff were mangroves and mudflats and grasses. We spent just as much time out there as we did on dry land. My mother was an artist, and I was given a kid’s camera when I was very young. She encouraged me to take photographs. That was something I could occupy myself with and not get in trouble. I think that’s where all of this started. She and I would talk about photography, especially when I got to be a teenager, and she bought me a real camera. She looked at the prints from the drugstore, and we’d be sitting out in the studio, and it didn’t take me long to realize that some of my photographs looked like her paintings. 

Conservation photographer Benjamin Dimmitt grew up in Clearwater, just south of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Photography courtesy of Benjamin Dimmitt.
Tell us about your first encounter with the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.  

I first went up there in 1977. Going up US 19 when there were no fast ways up there. My friend had a boat and my brother came along. It was breathtaking. It was just very different. All my prior years in Clearwater we were used to a beach, a bay and mangroves, and up there it’s a very different environment with spring-fed creeks, pumping beautiful clear water out. The streams would wiggle through freshwater, forest, hardwoods and then eventually mixed forest and then further out you get into brackish areas. There was no beach. It just went right out into the Gulf. I had never seen that. I was fascinated at the first trip. I didn’t go for years again. In 1985 was the next time I went. And I kept going there a lot. 

As a child in Florida, you can’t help but get acquainted with the state’s abundance of nature. And now we are bearing witness to so much destruction–as does your project. When did the idea come up for you?

I enjoyed going up there in the intervening decades, like the ’80s and ’90s. Then in 2004, I decided to make a photographic project that was just about places that I felt were vulnerable to climate change, worsening storms and development.  I started going all over the state and my favorite place to go was Chassahowitzka. Part of my commitment to the place was to photograph it. (In 2014,) I went there, and hadn’t been to the swamp since 2012. The saltwater intrusion had really started to worsen. It was a steep curve. One of the things that I enjoyed about collaborating with the scientist on the book was he sent me a graph which shows how steeply it happened. It seems to have happened out of nowhere. In 2014 I saw this devastation when I got off the boat on the dock and decided then to create a new project that was about what was happening there and the rising seas and the impact on the estuary and all of that. It took me a while to feel my way through that. (In 2020, the University of Georgia Press agreed to publish Dimmitt’s work.) Then I started photographing a lot more, going down there regularly. I stopped the shooting at the end of 2022.

Wendell’s Fog, 2018. Photography by Benjamin Dimmitt.
Throughout your career, you’ve been drawn to forested landscapes. What is the magic that you find there?

I tend to gravitate toward places that I’m attracted to and they need to resonate with me as ecosystems or as a landscape. Florida is just embedded in me, period. It didn’t take any time. It was unnecessary to cultivate. It goes back to mucking around on mudflats as a six-year-old and hearing my mother say, “Put on those old sneakers so you don’t ruin the new ones we just bought for you!” That’s a bond that’s hard to explain to some people: What your native landscape looks like and how you feel about it and how comforting it is to be in those places. I just enjoy the process of being there and photographing and like I mentioned with the “Primitive Florida” project, I was concerned that these places might be harmed as some of those factors were coming more into play. And lo and behold, those factors happened to Chassahowitzka. I learned about climate change and rising seas and all that in college in the ’70s. I thought, I agree that this is probably going to happen, but I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I was flabbergasted when I was told by scientists at the University of South Florida Bay Area campus that this landscape full of dead trees goes all the way up to Saint Mark’s.

I was struck by a quote from photographer Robert Adams you cite: “What we hope for from the artist is help in discovering the significance of a place.” And also, when you write that “It feels appropriate to honor these subjects beautifully,” even as you capture their devastation. Can you explain further?

We can’t tell the camera what to do. Excuse me. One has to tell the camera what to do, and that is the best part of the process. It’s not the hike there or the long paddle or whatever. It’s looking through the viewfinder. And, as Robert Adams might say, creating order out of chaos. My sense of order tends toward beauty. Especially if I’m doing this project of the dying swamp, I should make my subject look its best. I don’t know how to take ugly photographs. It’s not something I really want to learn.

Chassahowitzka Bay, 2004. Photography by Benjamin Dimmitt.
From a technical point of view, describe your approach using a medium format camera. Is there any particular aesthetic principle?

No, there isn’t. One of the things that makes it engaging for me is that I will paddle around a bend in the creek. And I’ve been on that creek many, many times over the course of 30 or 40 years, and I will see something that’s new to me, or it’s the light, or more trees have fallen into the creek and it looks different or better. It’s up to me to make a quick decision. Is it something that I’m going to photograph from the canoe? Hand-holding the heavy medium format camera and not have any stability because I’m in a canoe? Or am I going to paddle over somewhere or get in the water? Those are just logistical questions, but it helps me. I will immediately get the camera out–it’s in a dry box, at my knees–and look through the viewfinder and try to make sense of what I’m seeing and how I want to render it. The easier way of shooting is to only walk around on dry land, but you can’t always do that. There’s less and less dry land there. Then I can use a tripod and cable and make a 10-second exposure. The photographs made from the canoe are more shooting from the hip. You just get this very large, heavy camera and do your best.

In the book, you write about the fog, which obviously is so evocative and powerful ….

It is one of the reasons why I dealt with it in the text. When you’re shooting in the fog you’re going to get photographs that are less clear, obviously. At first I steered clear of the fog, but it’s there. I like to shoot the most down there in the winter, when the arc of the sun is lower in the sky. The swamp has no more trees. There was no shade, so that was a problem. But the fog is there, it’s a fact of life in the winter, in the swamp where it’s very humid and there’s this water that’s always pretty much 72 degrees. You can’t avoid it. I thought it was emblematic of this whole place disappearing.

Above: Lower Crawford Creek, 1988. Below: Lower Crawford Creek, 2014. Photography by Benjamin Dimmitt.
God knows it’s a terrible rabbit hole talking about Florida politics or efforts to regulate anything in the state. Do you have any hopes that these images might make some positive impact?

I would love to have the photography in the project stimulate a lot of discussion. It’s disappointing to me that the state—with all the science they put into water management, districts and boards and the policy for when the state will allow a property owner to extract water and when they won’t—to know that this was allowed to happen. My purpose beginning was nebulous to me. I felt like I needed to say goodbye to the place and to close the book on all the nice old photographs that I had done. Once I started the book, the press and I realized all those old photographs, when used side by side, can be really useful. I said, “Yeah, I know.” So we did. The thing I was most concerned with, since I was shocked by it, was to make it clear that this is happening now. It’s real. It’s now. And this is what it looks like. This is all film. There’s no retouching. This is truthful and accurate. I felt that it was important that others see it and know that this is happening.

Find “An Unflinching Look: Elegy for Wetlands” at the University of Georgia Press, Tombolo Books or Malaprop’s Bookstore.