by Max Marbut
Most of his assignments involve taking pictures of official City subjects and events for various brochures, publications and on-line newsletters. About three years ago Wes Lester, the City’s chief photographer, got a unique assignment that would send him on a journey from one end of the county to the other to experience some of the most unspoiled, primitive areas and capture their beauty forever.
Those locations will remain pristine forever because they are part of “Preservation Project Jacksonville,” a program started during Mayor John Delaney’s administration. Since 1999, more than $13 million has been invested to preserve 50,000 acres of the county’s estuaries and unspoiled marshland. Sixty percent of the funding was provided by the City’s partners in the effort including the National Park Service and the State of Florida. The acreage encompasses some of the only remaining unspoiled and undeveloped wetlands on the entire East Coast. The best part is most residents live or work within a 15-minute drive of the sites featured in Lester’s photographs.
Some of the preserved spaces will remain untouched, while others are being enhanced for public access with boat ramps, canoe and kayak launches and trails for cycling, hiking and walking.
Lester said his original assignment was to find a single iconic image that could be used to represent the project, “but that’s not what happened.”
By the time the assignment was completed, Lester said he had taken literally thousands of photographs. He spent many hours from dawn to dusk waiting to capture perfect moments of light and nature.
The photos are both still-life and action shots, some in color, some black-and-white. Subjects range from sunrises to sunsets to native plants and trees, birds, insects, alligators and dolphins.
“It was very different from shooting pictures for a brochure for the Solid Waste Division,” said Lester. “It was great to have some variety. One time in the dead of winter I chased some otters for more than three hours at Pumpkin Hill.”
Lester said working on the project really put him in touch with nature. For one of the images, a painted bunting perched in a cedar tree, he consulted a bird expert who told him what part of the tree his subject would prefer and even imitated its song so Lester would recognize it in the field.
The assignment had another effect that Lester said was perhaps the best part of the process.
“Your mind goes through a transformation when you spend time in these areas. Work stress just slips away. You relax and become more aware of the natural beauty around us. It kind of takes you to another world.”
Many of Lester’s images are currently on exhibit in the third-floor gallery at the Main Library. A collection of the photographs in a book form titled “Just Miles from Downtown” is available for purchase in Booktique, the library’s book store.
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