Sarasota artist Virginia Hoffman is getting ready to pick up fellow photographer Matt Allison from his home in the Village of the Arts, in Bradenton, for a photo excursion off the back roads of Parrish.
In preparation for the day trip, the 57-year-old free spirit has just made room in her silver SUV for camera equipment. She unloaded frames, canvases and even a plastic, glow-in-the-dark skeleton into her yellow studio off Sixth Street.
About two times a month, she and members of a group of about six area photographers go on an urban exploration of abandoned ruins found throughout Florida’s back country. As a memento, Hoffman pulled the Halloween door-hanger from her last adventure. Most the time, when she comes across abandoned household items, they pose as unintentional still lifes for her camera. She doesn’t touch them.
“Generally, I have a rule of not being sacrilegious to a site, but I couldn’t help myself,” she says.
The group — which consists of Hoffman, Allison, Salvatore Brancifort, Brian Braun, Chris Thibaut and Richard Porter — has visited an abandoned go-cart track covered in artful graffiti, a ghost town-like strip of a small community’s Main Street and a deteriorating Florida cracker house full of abandoned belongings, left behind as if the owner left to run an errand and never returned home.
The group calls itself the Pinhole Wizards, which is a name Porter came up with based on a pinhole camera — considered the simplest form in photography.
The Pinhole Wizards met on Facebook a little more than a year ago. They built a relationship from a shared interest of photography. A forum-like dialogue started via posting comments on each other’s professional work, and group members started proposing day trips.
Some days, there are three of them; other days the whole gang adventures out. Today, it’s just Hoffman and Allison, and they’re heading to one of their secret “honey holes,” a coveted gem for fine-art photography.
“You never know where you’re going to find one, but they’re around,” she says. Usually it’s by word-of-mouth, a little Google-mapping or stumbling across something while exploring back roads. Within 10 minutes of saying this, she passes a collapsing trailer that looks as if it’s melting into the side of an oak tree.
“We’ve got to come back to this baby,” Hoffman says.
The duo is headed to an isolated trestle bridge located near the train restoration yard for the Florida Train Museum. This will be the second time they’ve been to the location. On their first visit, while talking with some of the volunteers at the train yard, they learned the land, which the Robbins family owned more than 100 years ago, housed a sawmill and lumber company that shipped timber via trains to South America.
“It’s good we’ve got clouds today,” she says. “The last time we came here I thought they were going to have to carry me out of the woods.”
The last time four of them visited, it was early August. Their excitement was too prominent to think about the heat — until they began exploring under the relentless sun. Coincidentally, it was the hottest day of the year. Hoffman has vivid memories of being slumped over, near heat exhaustion, with a fluttering butterfly that kept landing near her.
Today is different. Hoffman is excited for the cooler weather and a better photo opportunity. She and Allison stand below the red rusting bridge at a bend in the water. They plant their tripods a few feet from each other. For the most part, the bridge has been left to its natural aging process and is overgrown with fauna and Spanish moss. A rope swing on the opposite side of the bank is the only reminder that civilization is nearby. Hoodlums haven’t mangled the dilapidated bridge — yet.
Hoffman hates it when they get to what could have been a beautiful site and find it’s littered with broken glass and profane, spray paint — it happens any time teenagers catch wind of these places. Though, there are a couple of empty beer cans around, the bridge has remained a “sacred” place. The duo decides that next time they will bring a garbage bag.
Hoffman and Allison like spots like this.
The Pinhole Wizards are selective about whom gets let in on the coordinates of the secret spots as a way to protect them from being vandalized or disrespected.
Hoffman hopes someone will restore the bridge, not to what it was like when it was brand new, but in a way that preserves what it looks like now into the future. She thinks it’d be great if they restored the bridge and turned the area into a public park. Allison believes there was a marker that signified the bridge’s age, but nothing tells its history now.
“There are so many places that are gone now,” Allison says. Hoffman nods her head in agreement.
It takes both photographers time to set up their cameras, and both have a separate approach: Allison uses an infrared filter and Hoffman uses a series of neutral density filters.
Hoffman starts to let loose; she’s making excited sounds.
“You’re like a kid when you come out here, Virginia,” Allison says.
When she finally has her camera set up and her 30-second and minute-long exposures start clicking, an occasional, “Oh, sexy,” or “That’s sexy” is whispered excitedly throughout the long process.
“We are capturing the best of Old Florida in how it exists today and expressing it through our mind’s eye as photographers,” says Hoffman.
She explains that each photographer can photograph the same subject, a few feet apart in the same lighting, and have vastly different results.
When the group began producing and displaying their images on Facebook, Hoffman felt the results spoke volumes. They needed to be shared with a greater population. She encouraged the rest of the group to create an exhibit with the results of its photo safaris. The month-long exhibit opens March 1, at the Historic Chidsey Library Building.
Hoffman hopes when people see the photos they will stimulate the same response she has to the preservation of such relics of the boom and bust of Florida; historical places falling to the wayside.
“Besides public art, historical preservation is the most important thing a community can do,” she says.
IF YOU GO
‘Florida in Context’
Fine-art photography exhibit featuring Virginia Hoffman, Matt Allison, Salvatore Brancifort, Brian Braun, Chris Thibaut and Richard Porter.
When: Opening reception takes place 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1. The exhibit runs through March 31.
Where: Historic Chidsey Library Building, 701 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: Free admission. A portion of sales will benefit Friends of Sarasota County History Center.
Info: Call 400-5217