“Finding Florida” A 1960’s road trip told with forced perspective photography

Florida has changed dramatically during my six decades as a resident. I grew up to believe that you are not a real Floridian until you’ve killed a big snake with a garden shovel. I often long for the pristine natural areas and rural country roads abundant in my childhood memories. Now old and full of both time and nostalgia, I decided to hit the backroads to see how much of real Florida still exists.

The trips led me to creating Florida Landscape photos with a nostalgic twist. Each image is shot with a hand-built diorama in the foreground featuring 1960’s era cars and highway billboards. I attempt to give the viewer the feeling I had as a seven year old-looking out the back window of the station wagon during pre-Disney family vacations.

The highway billboards of this decade lured motorists to witness animal shows with monster-sized reptiles, sea shells and helpings of pecan pie. Roadside stands sold citrus perfume, boiled peanuts, and stuffed alligator heads–in short, anything a first-time tourist would purchase .

“Finding Florida’ began for me as a nostalgia project and became a history lesson.

“Florida Land– 10 attractions for one price.” This was a popular billboard seen on State Road 41 heading south toward Sarasota. The family-run attraction popular in the 60’s, attempted to combine all of the state’s popular tourist hooks: themed rides, gator wresting shows, gifts and a botanical park.

My images are created entirely “in-camera”. I set up a tripod and shoot a hand-built diorama carried to the location and balanced on a step ladder.

The camera’s wide-angle lens placed inches from the subject does the work to seamlessly weave together foreground and background. This technique, called forced perspective, is how early cinematographers made Godzilla and King Kong seem larger than life.

  When I began the project, I wondered, “How much of Old Florida still exists?” I am a year in, and still discovering hidden gems all over the state.

I am having a blast navigating across the peninsula to chase old Florida fruit stands, family run attractions, historic downtowns and untamed wilderness. I am also learning sad truths about the state’s history. So many of the beaches, parks, restaurants, hotels, attractions I photographed were segregated until the very end of the 1960’s. As a child, I was unaware, that if, my family were black, they would be turned away from all of these places, and any resistance would risk a run-in with a small town Florida Sheriff.

The natural environment of Florida at the time, was absolute wilderness broken only by farms. Since then, overwhelming population growth and development has changed most every horizon. Thankfully, by driving and exploring, the center of the state, one can still find sweeping panoramas of open lands and Cypress canopied rivers and springs. I am eager to capture and learn more about this dynamic period of change in Florida. My goal is to create an art exhibit that people will find enjoyable, not just for the camera trickery, or the nostalgic toy cars, but a small window into Florida’s past. Bob Gibson, July 2024.

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Near the town of Christmas, Florida, one can view the vast marsh lands that feed the St. John’s River. The roadside stops still include Airboat Tours, Alligator Farms, Biker Bars and a park that includes restored Florida Cracker Homes. Highway 46 between Mims and Sanford is one of my favorite “Old Florida” drives.
Last Gas and Gator Bites. Yeehaw Junction began as a cattle stop between Ft. Pierce and Ft. Meyers
and grew to become a roadside stand selling fresh Indian River citrus, orange blossom perfume, boiled peanuts, fireworks and stuffed Alligators.
Palm Beach stole the headlines for celebrity sightings, while a few miles to the north, the intentionally private Town of Jupiter Island became one of America’s wealthiest zip codes.
Port Salerno thrived during the 50’s and 60’s as a hard-working fishing village surrounding the Manatee Pocket. Sport fishing yachts have replaced the net hauling boats. Today, some photogenic “Old Florida” homes and seafood diners still exist, including this roadside Ice Cream stop.
During the 50’s and 60’s Winter Haven, located near Lake City, attracted tourists to Central Florida to watch acrobatic waterski shows at Cypress Gardens. Today Legoland has replaced the “human pyramid” waterskiers. Winter Haven’s historic downtown aims to become a “foodie destination” with craft beer breweries.
Jupiter Inlet is a wonderful time travel location. You can climb a Lighthouse built just prior to the the civil war, visit a pioneer home or drive right up to an ocean inlet to fish or watch boats navigate the waves.