Mark Krancer, “Life in the River”, September 11, 2017.
Photography has captured some of the best and worst moments in Jacksonville’s history. On September 11, 2017, photographer Mark Krancer took what became the most famous image from the most damaging storm in city history: Hurricane Irma.
Irma first battered the West Indies on September 6, wreaking destruction across the islands before turning north. The storm struck Florida starting September 10, first in the Florida Keys and then at Marco Island. Through the night it made its way northeast toward Jacksonville. With the St. Johns River system already swollen with rain from a powerful nor’easter, Jacksonville saw brutal, historic storm surges as Irma advanced. Across the city, record floodwaters swallowed whole blocks, winds toppled trees and structures, and thousands were pushed out of their homes.
That day, photographer Mark Krancer, a resident of Riverside, got a text from his pastor telling him of the flooding in his neighborhood. Memorial Park was under four feet of water, he said, and Mark had better evacuate. Krancer replied, “I’m going to go take pictures.” He grabbed his camera and headed to the flooded Memorial Park.
The park, a memorial to the 1,200 Floridians who died in World War I, was designed by the Olmsted Brothers, who had previously designed Manhattan’s Central Park. Its central feature is the 1924 sculpture “Life,” created by St. Augustine sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars. With this sculpture, Pillars took a more abstract approach than most war memorials. His work features a globe of swirling waters on which human figures struggle for freedom, while the winged figure of Youth rises triumphantly above, holding an olive branch. Pillars intended the piece to represent the victory of the human spirit over the war’s devastation. Since its installation, “Life” has been one of Jacksonville’s most beloved pieces of public art.
Krancer had a special connection to the Memorial Park. He came to Jacksonville in 2014, looking for a new start. Visiting Riverside on his first day in town, he came across Memorial Park and the “Life” sculpture, and he knew Riverside was where he wanted to be. He took a job at The Florida Times-Union, where he did everything from shipping and receiving to scheduling and arranging ads. His seven minute bike rides to work every day took him past the park, and also inspired his interest in photography. “I would just catch sunrises on the way and take photos on my cell phone,” he said. When someone gifted him a camera, Memorial Park became his favorite place to hone his skills. Before long, he had started his own business, Kram Kran Photo. The park has remained special to Krancer; he even had his first date with his wife there.
But when he got closer to the river that day, he saw that his familiar and well loved route had been transformed by the floodwaters. “It was very intense,” he said, “seeing my everyday scene turned into this… otherworld of water.” He realized he would not be able to reach the park by car, but he encountered a few friends, and together they decided to brave the flooded streets on foot. When they arrived, they found that Memorial Park was totally inundated. Krancer waded into knee-deep water, but he didn’t have lenses he needed to take the pictures he wanted from that distance. “I said okay, I’ve got to take the plunge,” said Krancer. Holding his phone in one hand and his camera in the other, he waded further until he was close to the “Life” statue – and standing in waist-deep in water. He shot around 300 photos in the park, but one in particular stood out. This image, which Krancer titled “Life in the River,” catches the “Life” sculpture just as waves dramatically crash around it, the waters so high that it’s impossible to tell the flooded park from the St. Johns.
Krancer shared his image with friends on Facebook, and then went out to take more pictures of flood-wracked Riverside and San Marco. Before he knew it, his friends were sharing his picture, as were their friends – by the thousands. Krancer estimates that around a million people saw his viral photo in the first few days. “Life in the River” quickly became the defining image of Hurricane Irma’s destruction in Jacksonville, and it’s easy to see why. The imagery of waters surrounding a classically-inspired sculpture give the picture a distinctly Atlantean aspect, befitting a photographic record of the threat that extreme weather and climate change pose to a rapidly growing river city. At the same time, the image is hopeful. The victorious figure that Pillars intended to represent the triumph of life over war here appears to be rising, still victorious, over natural cataclysm.
Poetically, Krancer used the image to help restore Memorial Park after Irma, selling prints to raise funds for the Memorial Park Association to repair the badly damaged park. Prints of this and other works, as well as Krancer’s book about his life before and after “Life in the River,” are available on his website. Today, years after the hurricane, “Life in the River” continues to circulate and inspire, and no doubt will continue to do so for a long time.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com.
Bill’s book Secret Jacksonville, a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure is out now. Order a signed copy at thejaxsonmag.com/books.