Estuarial Exposure

A photographer’s nostalgia for waterlogged summers gone by tethers her to the Gulf Coast and inspires her art.

A photo of swimmers in Soldiers Creek taken by Jane Owenby
“Stephens Siblings Synchronized” // Photos by Jane Owenby

If you’ve ever gotten lost along the coast of Perdido Bay, you might have stumbled upon the narrow channel into Soldier Creek. You’d know it if you have. The berm separating the rough Bay waters from the gentle tributary is an austere strip of sand, bare of man-made structures. You’d have seen mothers in sunhats watching their children swim from the shore, men floating on pool noodles with beers in hand and pitmasters with too much faith in the placidity of the creek tending to charcoal grills in their boats. Theirs is an innocent and fulfilling existence that seems unconcerned with the passage of time — one that Jane Owenby captures with her photography. 

Owenby’s fascination with the camera began in 10th grade when she enrolled in a photography program at St. Paul’s Episcopal School. Her teacher, Leigh Brown, fostered Owenby’s interest by showing her what camera settings to use in different environments, what angles to use when shooting different subjects and how to develop film in a darkroom. She knew then that art would always be an integral part of her life. “Even though I didn’t end up being a professional photographer, Ms. Brown showed me that you can absolutely have a career that is artistic,” Owenby says. “Now, I’m an art director, but this hobby has really meant the world to me, being able to capture what I feel so deeply about my home and my memories.”

“Harbour Stephens”// “Sister Splashing” // “Henry Close Up” 

Though she is a Mobile native, Owenby’s fondest childhood memories are from her summers at her parents’ house on Soldier Creek. “It was so sad having to go back to school,” she recalls. “Of course, I love Mobile, but it was devastating at the end of every summer because it felt like we were all in our own little world going in and out of each other’s houses, eating each other’s foods. All the parents sort of just watched out for everyone. It was so special.” 

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Nostalgia for bygone days of flounder gigging and eating sandwiches on boats inspires Owenby’s art. She felt transported to a different, simpler world when her family moved across the Bay in the summers. Her life there was easier and slower than the one she left behind, courtesy of the culture her neighbors preserve. Locals have staved off commercial encroachment that’s spreading across the Gulf Coast to preserve the natural landscape and maintain a more family-centered, domestic environment that feels lost in time. “Soldier Creek has pretty much always stayed the same, so it’s maintained a secret hideaway feeling, especially going all the way back up in the creek,” Owenby says. “I remember spending a lot of time going out in the boat and jumping out of trees with our neighbor. We called him our summer brother, and he’d literally move into our house when we got there. We were always just outside playing and didn’t go anywhere else. It was our little slice of heaven.”

Owenby has documented her travels over the years, but nothing delights her more than taking candid photos of friends and family enjoying the water. When the photographer and her husband moved away from the Mobile area over a decade ago, she sought other lakes and rivers that could soothe her yearning for her beloved brackish tide. For Owenby, the coast of Croatia, the shores of Lake Superior and the Banks of Albania have nothing on Soldier Creek. It’s home. It’s where she jumped off the roof to get the most height on the rope swing, ignored the threat of alligators to swim in a “cold hole” during the hottest days of the summer, and is now watching the next generation of her family learning to swim and drive boats. Its timelessness and warmth beckoned to her from the moment she left, and she felt its embrace when she returned home after spending many years away. It’s where she’s meant to be.

While Owenby cherishes the privacy of her hidden paradise, she wants others to see through her art what makes life there so precious. She credits the water for much of it, which is why Soldier Creek is a muse that is heavily featured in her work. She sees it as a great equalizer that makes age and spryness irrelevant for those who want to soak in the brine. Photos from Owenby’s “lifelong ongoing series” tell a generational tale of her relatives’ own unique relationships with the water. Children with boundless energy backflip off the pier and plummet into the creek from a rope swing. Older cousins and siblings glide through the water just below the surface (some more gracefully than others). The family’s matriarch prefers to hold onto a tether and take in the world around her. Owenby’s mother has a penchant for diving into the riverbed and retrieving natural treasures. “My mom is always diving for weird stuff at the beach. She’ll bring up sticks and stuff,” she says with an affectionate smirk. “And I love that! It’s that childlike wonder people get in the water that sort of makes everything disappear.”

“Harbour Kicks Underneath” // “Sibling Squabbles”

One of Owenby’s favorite regional cultural quirks is that Alabamians along the Gulf Coast don’t allow rain to interrupt their swimming. In a place that experiences 60 inches of rain per year, getting caught in a popup shower while in the water is inevitable. It’s such a common occurrence that locals have developed a situational blindness to rain. Wet is wet, after all. It’s a philosophy of resignation and acceptance with which Owenby is intimately familiar and has captured on film on more than one occasion. “Swimming in the rain feels more immersive. Of course, we all love a sunshiny day. But there’s something about Mobile’s summer storms that really remind me of home.” She admits that being ambivalent about the weather wasn’t always sensible. “If it was raining, we’d just keep swimming. If there was lightning, we’d probably sit on the pier under the tin roof, which was probably a terrible idea. But it just felt like summer.” 

It’s her vision of summer as a time of purity, contentment and nostalgia that Owenby wants to evoke through her photos of her family in Soldier Creek. “In my mind, it’s almost like an idealistic capturing of innocence and freedom and the simplicity of things,” she says of her work. “I’ve always loved how the water kind of swallows everything around it — how people fit in nature and they coexist. There’s just something about people in the water. It’s not exactly animalistic, but it’s a natural stripping down of everything and getting back to the roots. It’s nostalgic and timeless. It’s that raw emotion I’m always going for.”

“Sister Swims” // “Brothers on the Wharf” // “Henry Flips” 

Owenby hopes that people take away from her photos a sense of affection for the ageless charm and beauty of the South. “The South is the most beautiful place in the world to me, it feels like childhood and home and simplicity,” she says. “It’s an intimate place, a place that surrounds you like water surrounds a swimmer. It’s a place of community and a place that celebrates generations coming together and staying together. Passing down traditions, passing down memories. I hope to capture that intergenerational connection that people have with nature and each other in my art. I tend to live in memories, and everything I capture I want to feel like a memory, a moment worth keeping.”

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