When the round drawl of Walter Coker’s Alabama roots unfurls into the conversation, you listen—closely. In his stories, there’s a wealth of context that edges toward encyclopedic and a care for nuance that reflects the place he came of age: Florida. And then, just when you’re about to wince, when the story is almost just too much to bear, Coker will stare you in the eyes, pivot to some dark pun, and his booming laugh will wash over you. The same might be said for his photographs.

Coker at home in St. Augustine. // Photo: Matt Titone

The range in his storytelling is the thing that lends his photographs this almost alchemical draw. In some, they take on the fly-in-a-room perspective of a William Eggleston or the deadpan approach of Dorothea Lange, but always, they reflect the core components that make up Coker’s je-ne-sais-quois: straight-forward, lots of detail, and no bullsh**.

Coker grew up in Satellite Beach. An Air Force brat, he inherited a peripatetic tic from his dad to find something he could call his own. For 40 years, he has returned to a little blip of limestone in the Bahamas to surf and make photographs. And in the past 25 years, periodic trips to Asia have eaten up vast swaths of his passport and led to his second career as a shop owner.

But let’s not stray too far from the issue at hand: Coker’s photographs. The body of work he has amassed mirrors his curiosity and his time spent away from home. Pawing through his immense archives that consist of raw files and negatives and slides and prints and stories reveals a commitment to social justice, to community, to celebrating the place he’s called home since 1990—which is St. Augustine.

But what you ultimately find in his work is that it takes an adept eye, deeply aware of what lies outside the frame, to show us even a glimpse of the complexity that Florida lays claim to. After a lifetime here—21 of which he was on staff at Folio Weekly—Coker is just starting to get a sense of just how complicated this place really is. But let him tell you—in his own voice.

Interstate 10, Jacksonville, 1999. “This truck, burdened with a load of old mufflers, pulled in front of me on I-95 as I approached the Fuller Warren Bridge. The irony struck me immediately and I knew it was a photo I wanted, so I followed until it exited onto I-10 (with much lighter traffic) and shot this through my windshield while driving. Not recommended.”

St. Augustine Alligator Farm, September, 2001. “Looking down into the albino alligator exhibit, I noticed the gator’s mirror image in the glass sides of the bridge.”

Hastings Cabbage and Tater Festival, May, 1999. “A Christian-themed, mom and pop-owned traveling fair provided the rides at the festival that year, and the names of the rides were all modified to reflect their religious views.”

Bahamas, January, 2018. “Hanging out with an old Bahamian friend I’ve known since 1977, I noticed the intricate patterns of a piece of bleached-out, basketball-sized brain coral in his yard, and shot this with my phone. Only later did I realize how much it resembles a piece of Keith Haring artwork.”

Anastasia State Park, February, 1982. “I was shooting the legendary Blowhole on one of the best days I’ve ever witnessed when I noticed this bomb set detonating up the beach at a then under-surfed spot called Middles, a few hundred yards north. I still remember being dismayed that I caught the Chevy Nova in the corner of the photo, but it now serves as a sort of cherry-red time stamp on the image and I’ve come to love it. By the way, don’t bother looking for either Blowhole or Middles these days, as sand mining for beach renourishment did them both in decades back.”

Anastasia State Park, August, 2009. “Hurricane Bill will live in infamy among Florida surfers for his near-perfect fish-storm track and solid, days-long ground swell. I was shooting a certain high tide beach break when a big set hit this outer shoal just right, peeling perfectly in both directions with no takers anywhere close.”

This feature originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Void Magazine (Vol. 9 Issue 8), The Photo Annual, under the header “Portfolio: Walter Coker”

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