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Photographer's love of Silver Springs was crystal clear

SILVER SPRINGS

Gone. They all are. Tarzan, dead. Lloyd Bridges, the Sea Hunt guy, rest in peace. Esther Williams, the Hollywood mermaid, passed away in June. Bruce Mozert knew them all.

Mozert is not gone. He's 96, walks with a cane, loses his breath and, once in a while, his train of thought. "But I'm still standing,'' he says in a strong voice. He reports every day to his studio around the corner from what was once Florida's most famous tourist attraction, Silver Springs. For almost half a century his job was taking the photographs, usually black and whites, which publicized the great water park to the rest of the world.

In Mozert's pictures, bathing beauties dance the hula, read the newspaper or picnic — all under the water. They cavort with turtles and tickle bass under the chin. And any celebrity who ever dipped a toe in the 72-degree water posed for his camera.

The real star at Silver Springs, of course, was water so clear it seemed more sky than liquid. You could swim in it, and you could look at it from the safety of a boat with a glass bottom. Silver Springs, a wonder of the world, was Florida's Grand Canyon.

The old tourist attraction is still around, located a little east of Ocala on State Road 40, but it's hardly the same place. The water no longer gushes from the ground as powerfully as it once did — nor is it as clear. The tourists? Mostly gone.

If you have never visited Silver Springs before, if you don't know Florida, it might look wonderful. But if you're an old-timer with a memory you will prefer those memories to the water below.

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He was 22 the first time the springs took his breath away. It was 1938 and he was a kid photographer from Ohio who stopped to check things out on his way to a job in Miami.

The publicity man introduced him to a tall man in a loincloth.

"Bruce,'' said the press guy, "I want to introduce you to Johnny Weissmuller.''

The Hollywood star, at the springs for another Tarzan extravaganza, scooped Mozert off the ground, holding him so high his feet dangled.

"Glad to know you, Bruce,'' the Ape Man said.

Mozert stayed for nearly five decades. Underwater photography was in its infancy; he built his own equipment, including waterproof boxes to protect his cameras. He built props and developed special effects. "If you had a girl grilling a steak under the water,'' he says, "you could make milk look just like smoke coming off the grill.''

He was the king of kitsch.

"He was just trying to publicize the spring,'' says Gary Monroe, a Daytona Beach State College fine arts professor who wrote the text for a new book collection of Mozert's photos. "But he left an unparalleled photo document of the most important Florida tourist attraction of the era.''

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Tourists began visiting Silver Springs about the time of the Civil War. From Jacksonville, they boarded paddle boats that traveled along the St. Johns, the Ocklawaha and finally the Silver River, which led to a hotel at Silver Springs. Guests included President Ulysses S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Uncle Tom's Cabin author who wintered in Florida.

It was the Golden Age. Tourists in Hudsons and Studebakers and DeSotos traveled new roads, stayed in mom-and-pop motels and ate meatloaf at home-cooking restaurants. Lured by Mozert's promotional photographs in Life magazine, they gaped at thick schools of bream, bass and catfish swirling under the glass-bottomed boats.

The temperamental actor Esther Williams, who specialized in swimming flicks, usually avoided the paparazzi, but liked posing for Mozert, who made her laugh. He also took the iconic publicity photos of Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman for The Yearling. Two Creature from the Black Lagoon sequels were filmed at Silver Springs with Mozert behind his camera. In 1955 a young starlet with a bit part in Howard Hughes' new movie, Underwater, needed a publicity photo. Ascending a ladder, Bruce Mozert pointed his camera straight down at a kneeling Jayne Mansfield.

"She had some cleavage,'' the photographer says.

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In the 1950s, new interstates routed traffic farther away from the springs. In 1971, Walt Disney World opened near Orlando. Crowds dwindled.

"Everything changed,'' Mozert says.

Natural beauty, it turned out, was no competition for the corporate Mouse. Silver Springs introduced African animals, jeep safaris and rides. But that didn't bring the tourists back.

Mozert retired from Silver Springs in 1985, but continued freelancing. In 2005, he donned scuba equipment for the last time, slipped into the spring and took color photographs for a calendar. The bathing beauties were young and pretty. He was 88 and somewhat wrinkled.

His workplace, more a museum than a studio today, still smells slightly of darkroom chemicals obsolete in the digital age. Old cameras line the shelves. Negatives — who keeps negatives in 2013? — are filed neatly in boxes. Stacks of old photos wait on dusty tables for customers who rarely arrive.

He likes the old Florida better than the new. He has outlived three sons and many old friends, including perhaps his best pal of all, Silver Springs. Like Mozert, so many people fell in love with the springs and settled in Florida. They bought homes, wanted golf courses and shopping centers. In the 21st century sprawling developments suck water out of the aquifer for landscaping and teeth brushing. The water that returns to earth, and comes out of the ground, is tainted by fertilizers and pesticides. It's not only Silver Springs that's ailing. All the springs are.

Mozert still visits his favorite anyway. He hobbles down the boat-dock steps to gaze into the water below. Where he once admired snow-white sand and fish by the thousands he sees an algae-covered bottom. Biologists say 90 percent of the fish population has vanished.

So have the tourists, who once came by the thousands, but now come by the dozens.

Once he could hold his breath two minutes underwater. Shuffling out of the park, leaning on his cane, he stops every few feet to refill his lungs. "It's a different place now," he says. "I wish it wasn't so, but it is.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com.

Glory days: Silver Springs: the Underwater Photography of Bruce Mozert, with Gary Monroe, University Press of Florida, $29.95

Nowadays: Check out Times staff writer Craig Pittman's stories about Florida's vanishing springs.

Photographer's love of Silver Springs was crystal clear 07/31/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 7:14pm]

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