“Photography has always been a passion of mine,” said John Bennett, the November Fort Myers Beach Library Artist of the Month! “I first started taking photographs when I was around 12 or 13-years-old, when I was in the Boy Scouts. We had an uncle who lived with us for a while, and he set up a dark room, and everything I did was in black-&-white, and I just fell in love with it and thought it was the greatest thing ever! As a kid, I took pictures of everything, from the river to family photos to pictures on the way to Grandma’s and thought everything was a masterpiece up until I turned 18, but today I don’t have a single one of them!”
Not long after high school, John joined the Navy. “We were able to list our primary assignment selections and I asked for photography and fortunately received it and was sent to a fantastic training school in Pensacola. Up to then, despite my passion for photography, I had no formal training, so I hoped for the best. We started off at ground zero in our training that lasted for about 6 months, and by the time we were done, we were knowledgeable about every aspect of photography, with all the relevant information. I graduated very near the top of my class and became a full-fledged Navy photographer, meaning I could do everything from studio work to portraits to military pictures, because as a Navy photographer, you must be able to do a bit of everything. It was fun and intense all at the same time, because you never knew your next assignment.”
The Navy kept John in Pensacola, assigning him to the Naval Technical Training Center, “where I did everything from ‘Grin Shots’ to award ceremonies to photographing broken aircraft parts – you name it! I got to the point where I could do a really good job in a quick fashion, and that allowed me to rapidly move up.”
Toilets & Pilots
His first primary traveling assignment was to cover the Navy Choir for over a year. “Remember I was still in the military, so I had to do regular jobs during the week that weren’t so glamorous, like my share of cleaning toilets! On the weekends, however, the Choir did three to five shows, so we would all hop on a plane and travel to various venues, from performing at places like a college to the ‘Miss USA Pageant.’ I was the only enlisted man, as everyone is the Choir were pilots, but we were all close in age, so I loved traveling with the guys to the various shows. Eventually, there were three photographers assigned to the Choir, so we often got to decide amongst ourselves which shows we would travel to, so you sort-of picked your favorites.”
John ultimately spent 12 years in the Navy, “and that played a big part in advancing my photography. I never intended to serve that long, but every time I was ready to leave, the powers-that-be kept convincing me to return! I did eventually have time on weekends to do some of my own photography, and in either 1986 or ’87, I took a terrific nature shot of a Bald Eagle, with the ideal background and its eyebrow arched perfectly, that won the All Services Photography Contest, and that was a big deal, as that provided me with quite a bit of notoriety. The Navy used that shot for promotional purposes many times after that. Next thing you knew, I received the assignment to cover the Blue Angels and did that for three years.”
With that tour of duty coming to an end, John was once again ready to conclude his military career, even to the point that he was literally doing his paperwork to process out, when he received a last-minute call from a Naval recruiter, “who wondered if he could tease me with my choice of two plumb assignments! I could join Project Deep Freeze that would take me to Antarctica, along with all the details I needed to know, or a mystery job in Hawaii that was a total unknown, saying only that I would find out what it was when I arrived. I could however call the officer in charge and when I did, he told me he was golfing, so I decided I would accept the opportunity to take a free move to Hawaii!”
The military was a great experience for John, “but 12 years was enough. While the Blue Angels were fun and Hawaii terrific, I also went to places like Asia and the Middle East, and experienced some pretty tough conditions in Somalia. Plus my wife Nicole and I were married for a couple of years at that point, and in the military, you are home for one month and gone for three, so it was just time.”
Bad Hours, Low Pay
Now on his own, John explored various photographic careers. “I looked at everything, including local news stations, where the hours are bad and pay terrible! Another was as a photographer for extreme sports, like scuba and skydiving, but that was seven days a week for little money. As luck had it, I gave my resume to a friend to critique, and he passed it along to McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, who hired me, so even though I was a civilian, I still did a lot of military work for the next four years.”
John and Nicole eventually settled in St. Louis, while she completed chiropractic school. “We vacationed in Southwest Florida from when I was still in Pensacola, and we worked in St. Louis all the time to vacation down here, so finally, we decided to move to Fort Myers Beach in Spring 2003 and vacation elsewhere! I still do a bit of assignment photography, like for real estate and similar-type things, but mostly now I do photography for enjoyment, focusing on nature.”
That is the primary aspect of his FMB Library exhibit: “Nature, wildlife, and landscapes,” John said with a laugh! “The best of all worlds!” John has been the FMB Library Artist of The Month several times, dating back to before the building’s expansion. “Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding found out about me somehow, and just called one day. My first show only had about 12 photographs, and he calls back now about every two years or so, and this time I will provide roughly 30 pictures. It is always on honor, as Fort Myers Beach is full of talented artists and photographers. I am so happy to be a part of this island community and certainly enjoy this platform, though I don’t really consider myself to be an artist!”
To view John’s photography, visit the Fort Myers Beach Library’s 3rd Floor Exhibit Gallery through November 30. The Library is at 2755 Estero Boulevard, with hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and closed Sundays and holidays including Monday, November 12, to observe Veteran’s Day, and Thanksgiving on November 22. For details, see www.fmb.lib.fl.us or call 239-765-8162.
By Gary Mooney
Photos by John Bennett.