From the crunch of gridiron action on the football field to the quiet calm of an early morning staring out at the waters of Biscayne Bay, Tom Smith has seen South Florida from all angles.
Smith, a running back for the Miami Dolphins during the 1973 season, has since become a fine art photographer, with work shown up and down the East Coast, California and Europe. His portfolio also boasts images of the Baltic Sea.
This week, however, the historic Matheson Hammock and its surrounding Biscayne Bay take top billing. The South Florida photographer’s shots of the park and bay went on display on the walls of Red Fish Grill, a Coral Gables bayside restaurant that has been housed in the park’s coral rock pavilion since 1996.
The exhibit, expected to run through August, is designed to draw awareness to, and celebrate, the fragile beauty of the region. Also, through sales of the images, some of which have been printed onto canvas, a portion of the proceeds will benefit the recently formed Biscayne Bay Coalition. The coalition numbers Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers, Friends of Biscayne Bay and Tropical Audubon Society among its members.
“What I appreciate about his work is that he can capture a part of South Florida that is timeless in my mind,” said Hunter Reno, an avid water sports devotee and niece of Janet Reno, the former Miami-Dade state attorney and U.S. attorney general. “I have memories of going to Matheson with my grandmother and I take my children now and it hasn’t changed. Few places in Miami feel like that sense of timelessness.”
Exhibits like Smith’s can inspire the next generation to “understand the treasures of our natural environment, an awareness to the environment we are in, and to protect it,” said Reno, 45.
Smith, 63, said his photographs — including a red boat hull bobbing at a dock or majestic palms stretching to support a mass of bruising thunderheads over the waters — seem to inspire an outpouring of stories from natives.
“When people are looking at my photos and they don’t know where it is, it dawns on them. ‘Is that Matheson?’ As soon as I say, ‘Yes,’ there’s always a story that follows. It’s always fun sharing something with someone that can relate to your photographs.”
On Tuesday evening, about 100 people, including scions from South Florida’s most prominent pioneering families — the Mathesons and Munroes — and Smith’s Miami Dolphins teammate Eugene “Mercury” Morris, supported the exhibit at a reception at Red Fish Grill.
Biscayne Bay Coalition members, including Hunter Reno and Katy Sorensen, the former Miami-Dade Commissioner and founder of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, also turned out to champion the exhibit and its cause.
“I’m very happy, as the bay has always played a major role in our family’s lives, past and present — it’s what drew our great grandfather here,” said Henry Matheson, 66, a board member of Friends of Biscayne Bay. “I believe it’s this community’s most important natural resource. And Tom’s photographs bring the bay into focus for everyone in a meaningful way.”
Fellow Friends of Biscayne Bay board member Charles Munroe, great grandson of Coconut Grove pioneer Commodore Ralph Munroe, spoke about the exhibit earlier in the day.
“Tom’s photographs capture the beauty of Biscayne Bay, and consequently this exhibit is an opportunity to communicate to the general public what a special place the bay is. When people connect emotionally to the bay, they understand that it is worth preserving. I fell in love with Biscayne Bay as a kid — sailing, fishing and swimming. We hope and believe that photographs like Tom’s will motivate more people to get involved and be stewards of this precious resource,” Munroe, 45, wrote in an email.
Smith, who lives in South Miami, estimates he has taken 3,000 photos at Matheson over the last five years. His interest in fine art photography began in 1970 when he was on a football scholarship at the University of Miami, where he studied art and design. The mean season is his favorite time of the year to capture Matheson Hammock and Biscayne Bay at its most dramatic. Just set your alarm clock for early morn’ if you’re hoping to share a story with the photographer along the bank as he shoots the scene that unfolds before him.
“The best time of year to shoot here is when the great thunderstorms come across Key Biscayne,” he said. “I get up at 5:30, get a coffee at Starbucks, sit in my car listening to business, and wait for the sun to come up. I’ve been coming here since college for 40-plus years. It’s a quick exit from the maddening city — a quiet, great place. You don’t have to worry about parking, they have trees, the water, you can see Key Biscayne and can see Turkey Point on a clear day. You can see boats on the bay. There’s a lot going on here but it’s very calming.”
Stick around a bit on a midweek morning and you might also spot wildlife. Smith said he’s seen a fox running around and dolphins swimming by.
“There’s a lot to photograph and you don’t have to move,” he said. “You can sit in one spot and things go by, the clouds are always changing.”
Local historian Arva Moore Parks champions Smith’s efforts, along with Miami-Dade County’s involvement in maintaining Matheson Hammock which became the first county park when Charles Matheson gave 80 acres as a gift to the county in 1930.
“Matheson Hammock is a paradise in the midst of a lot of development,” she said. “They’ve done a really good job of holding on to its history and natural environment and it’s an example of which I wish there were more. There wasn’t interest in maintaining the natural environment back when Matheson Hammock was first acquired by Dade County, at the time. For many years in Miami, the mangroves existed only to be removed. Environmentalists realized the interconnection between the bay and mangroves and fish and weather. I’m excited and love having this building utilized.”
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