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Local artist Jonah Allen challenges people to see the coastline differently

Margaret Abrams

Posted on Sep 29, 2022 in jonah allen , Art

Locally beloved artist Jonah Allen is publishing his first coffee table book, “Where Waters Meet,” full of awe-inspiring aerial images of 30A.

Allen is famous for his photographs of the dune lakes and coastline of Walton County. You’ve probably seen his work at a dinner party, but you can also see more at his gallery in Santa Rosa Beach.

If you’ve been hoping for a stunning coastline piece of your own, it’s easier than ever. Now, he’s reproducing photographs for his book, so you can celebrate and learn about the coastline from your own home.

The book features essays from local celebrities, including Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley and local biologist John Burns. Allen is also donating a portion of proceeds to the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, a local non-profit that does water quality research on the lakes and surrounding waterways.

The surfing artist was born in Atlanta and grew up vacationing on 30A. He relocated to Santa Rosa Beach after graduating from the University of Georgia, and started photographing the Gulf of Mexico in 2017.

The Seaside Times chatted with the photographer to find out how he snaps his awe-inspiring shots and why this project was years in the making.

Local artist Jonah Allen challenges people to see the coastline differently

What brought you to the 30A area originally?

I caught my first wave in Seaside as a 10-year-old kid, and that experience alone changed the trajectory of my life. I became obsessed with the ocean and surfing. The fascination intensified over the next two decades, as I grew up and traveled around the globe surfing world class waves in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.

When did you get started creating art locally?

When I began creating art here in 2017, I was focused on the ocean and making images from the perspective of the water. As a surfer, I was really interested in the dynamic relationship between water and light. So, I began making images of waves, by swimming out into the ocean with my camera inside a water housing.

What was the response like?

It took some time to get some traction, but now I feel like it has absolutely exploded in the last two years, and I’m blessed that I get to be a full-time artist. It’s an incredible lifestyle and career, and I wake up every day super excited with a burning desire to become a master at my craft. I now have hundreds of local clients and international collectors as well.

Local artist Jonah Allen challenges people to see the coastline differently

Tell me a little about the process of creating your aerial pieces.

“Where Waters Meet” is a four-year chronicle of my fascination with the Emerald Coastline of Northwest Florida. It’s an homage to a sacred place in my heart and the hearts of many people. The narrative follows the life cycle and visual effects of an incredibly rare phenomenon called a coastal dune lake, which is a shallow lake formed within two miles of the coast.

What makes dune lakes unique is that their mostly freshwater content sits just feet away from the Gulf of Mexico. Following a heavy rain, as the lakes accumulate water, the sand is breached, causing the lake freshwater to flow into the emerald saltwater of the Gulf. This event is called an “outfall” and was the catalyst for this project. Transfixed by this confluence of energy, where tannin colored lake water meets the emerald Gulf water, I made over 50,000 images from the sky focusing on this exchange.

This series of photographs doesn’t solely focus on the lakes. It honors the natural beauty and biodiversity of the Emerald Coastline, and more specifically the beaches of 30A, home of the coastal dune lakes, where the sugar-white sand borders the turquoise waters.

How did you capture the aerial views?

While I shot this body of work from a door-less helicopter and drone from 2018 to 2021, my relationship with this coastline began many years before.

Some days, I spend over six hours immersed in the water, observing and documenting the changes of the elements. I’ve developed profound respect for it, as the ocean’s personality can change at any given moment. When I’m taking photos in the ocean or surfing, I’m toying with that energy, harnessing it, and capturing it in an image. That's what this whole body of work is about - capturing the energy and the spirit of 30A.

Local artist Jonah Allen challenges people to see the coastline differently

How has your photography style changed over the years?

When I first began photographing the coastal dune lakes, I was making images from the ground, which didn’t convey what I was trying to communicate. Once I realized I could remove the barrier of gravity with drones and helicopters, and have the freedom to capture any perspective, I had a new sense of inspiration. I chose to shoot this narrative from an aerial perspective because it challenges you to look at this coastline in a new way.

How did you create images for your book?

The process of photographing “Where Waters Meet” was quite challenging. I had to act when all the variables aligned: the tide, the wind speed and direction, the swell size and direction, and the state of the lakes. All these factors had to be in alignment with the most important variable of all: the quality of light.

Making this series of images was a labor of commitment, waking up at dawn most mornings to either launch the drone or take off in the helicopter at sunrise. I waited for years for the variables to align to make some of these images.

The catalyst for this book project started in 2017 when I was standing on the beach, absolutely transfixed by one of the dune lakes outfalling into the Gulf of Mexico. I remember hearing tourists complain about the “dirty” water, which is not dirty at all, just tea colored lake water from the organic matter. It was then that I decided I wanted to make a book that showcases the beauty of these lakes and of the 30A coastline. In my mind, it was a challenge. How can I make something look incredibly beautiful which people see as ugly?

Local artist Jonah Allen challenges people to see the coastline differently

What do you want people to get out of this project?

These landscapes and water systems are sacred places, not just for their sheer rarity, or ecological importance, but because of how they make people feel. The lakes are truly one of the most remarkable places in the world.

Unfortunately, during my lifetime, and just in the last three years, the area is facing rapid development which is putting pressure on the coastal dune lake ecosystems. I’m not against development, as long as it’s done in a sustainable way. The state of the dune lakes is still relatively pristine. But, with the rate of exponential development, and no laws or statutes protecting the lakes, the rate of development will have a shattering effect over time.

The greatest threat to the lakes and biodiversity is cultural eutrophication, which occurs when human water pollution and nutrient loading speeds the aging process of a body of water by introducing sewage, detergents, fertilizers, runoff and other nutrients into the water. Look around South Florida, and you can see this firsthand: blue-green colored lakes overgrown with toxic algae. This can be prevented for these dune lakes, but time is critical.

South Walton, Fla., has remained a low-density place for many years. But the rate of development and change is exponential, and will cause cultural eutrophication in the lakes if no protections are put in place. We have the opportunity to keep them as they are, and the solution is to control the nutrients that enter every lake.

I devoted all this time making this work because art can change how you feel. What I’m capturing is not just a moment. Art is enlightening. It’s something that can actually inform you and move you to do something and take action. It can redefine your own role in your own community. It can make you dream. Art can change your perspective, so that is why I made this book — for people to see the world in a new way.