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Meet Jonah Allen: The photographer chasing waves and light across the Gulf

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH – Jonah Allen’s dreams are already socially distanced.

They live at the point where water and light meet – something usually far more than six feet away from everyone else. Little has changed in his life since the pandemic.

To call Allen a beach photographer would be inaccurate. He doesn’t photograph beach weddings or family portraits, but instead fleeting moments in time in the Gulf of Mexico from various perspectives – sometimes as high up as from a helicopter or drone, at eye level from the sand or from within the water.

More:PHOTOS: Photographic artist Jonah Allen of South Walton

More:JONAH ALLEN: Capturing land, water and light

The moments he captures are big – immersive and beautiful.

And when he looks at them, he’s never felt smaller.

South Walton landscape photographer Jonah Allen shot this self-portrait in the Gulf of Mexico. [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

‘A way to cope’

If more than half of his body is composed of water – then Allen feels every ounce of it. The water has called to him since he was child growing up landlocked in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

Allen and his family would periodically visit the Gulf of Mexico, where he fell in love with the water and surfing.

“It had such a transformative power on me," Allen said. "Ever since I’d seen the ocean, I always felt this disconnect where I didn’t feel like I was where I needed to be. It was a great upbringing, had a great childhood, but I never really felt like I belonged there. I always felt like I needed to be by the ocean.”

Capturing it was only an afterthought. In his high school freshman year, Allen borrowed his friend’s birthday present, an underwater camera.

“I started making images in the water because it was really fun to do,” Allen said. “But also – I didn’t know it at the time – but subconsciously I was making images that I could bring back to Georgia – memories, as a way to cope with not being able to live near the ocean.”

Photography wasn’t Allen’s first love; music was. He attended the University of Georgia armed with the knowledge that a 9-to-5 job wasn’t for him.

“I knew with my personality, I had to be an entrepreneur – whether that was making music, or at the time I didn’t even really think about art,” Allen said. “I just knew I had to do something that aligned my passion with my career. How I made money, I had to love the process of doing it. I’m not somebody who can just be OK with being unhappy or at a baseline. I’m always trying to push myself mentally or physically.”

Allen worked as a college newspaper photographer and wrestled with the decision to major in photojournalism or art. Nobody was team art.

He opted for a bachelor’s in marketing, which he completed in 2015, and then did nothing with it – not at first.

Allen veered and did what his heart wanted to all along, followed the water.

“My parents thought I was gonna throw out my education by not going right out of school to do something,” Allen said. “I was basically a vagabond for a year. It was an incredible year.”

Santa Rosa Beach photographer Jonah Allen captured waves in this image titled "Peak No. 44." [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

‘A transfer of energy’

Allen chased waves like it was his job.

The passionate surfer camped, cooked and experienced culture in Hawaii, Chile, South America, Indonesia, Europe, the coast of Italy, France, Peru, Iceland and Mexico. Indonesia and Peru had the best waves.

In his journey, he discovered – or at least skimmed the surface of – the meaning of water.

Santa Rosa Beach photographer Jonah Allen captured waves in this image titled "Peak No. 7." [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

“While I was in all of these different bodies of water all around the world, I got to see how not only do we need water to survive, but water is a symbol for many different things and many different cultures,” Allen said. “In Hawaii, the way Hawaiians look at the water with reverence. It has so much power, and they really respect it because of their large swells that come there every day. In a place like Chile, there’s a lot of fishermen. They’re catching dinner for their families. The ocean has a source of vitality. It brings this life. It’s a transfer of energy, by getting the food.”

Indonesia – specifically Bali – has a much different perspective.

“The most pure place for the Balinese is the tallest point, the highest point of elevation,” Allen said. “That’s the holiest place for them. The holiest place on the body is your head. The most impure place, or the non-holiest place, would be the sea. That’s where all the runoff goes."

Then, there is home.

“If you think about the economics and infrastructure of Northwest Florida from Pensacola to Panama City, in my mind there’s really only two main drivers of the economy – the first is the military operations, but also the Gulf,” Allen said. “Imagine if this area didn’t have the Gulf. Tourists wouldn’t come here. The quality of the water – that’s what drives people here.”

Allen moved to Santa Rosa Beach at the end of 2017 with no money or direction.

“I was broke,” Allen said. “I had just spent an entire year traveling around the world.”

In deciding his career path, Allen had to rule a few things out.

“Firstly, my shot at being a professional surfer was long gone – I didn’t grow up surfing,” Allen said. “My second biggest passion was music.”

While in college, Allen worked at a recording studio 12 hours a day, further proof it wasn't a good fit.

“I loved making music, but I knew I didn’t want to be inside all the time,” Allen said. “There’s no market here in this area for the music I want to create. I was like, ‘Well, can’t make money from surfing. Can’t make money from music. This is crazy, but there’s no one really pursuing large format photograph art, making – in my opinion – really quality beautiful images.”

He used to chase waves like it was his job; now it is. He chases the waves and light for his photography business.

30A photographer Jonah Allen's image "Peak No. 52" installed in the collector's home. [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

“Photography is a vehicle for me to spend a lot of time in nature and be able to share the emotions I get with other people,” Allen said.

Like for many others, the waves provide serenity for Allen. When the water is calm, he feels calm.

But there is more to it than that, he said. 

“On days where there’s really large waves and you’re out there making images or surfing, what I love about is it makes me feel energized,” Allen said. “Literally there’s a transfer of energy. A wave is just energy. Water is just a medium. The wave is created from wind, a transfer of wind energy to the sea. A wave is just propagating all the energy and water is just the medium. When you harness that energy surfing or that energy passes by you while you’re swimming, it’s really energizing.”

‘So much water’

Allen lives in Seagrove Beach, a mere 100 steps from the Gulf of Mexico. Every morning, he wakes at sunrise, walks to the beach and checks the conditions – cellphone free.

“If the conditions look like I want to photograph, I’ll make images – whether that’s in the water, from the air or in the sand,” Allen said.

Allen is always amid series of works from those three perspectives.

“One is from the air, so I try to rent helicopters or use drones sometimes to make images of waters intermixing or the Gulf water,” Allen said. “Another type of imagery is from the sand. I love photographing the sand patterns and the shoreline from the sand. And lastly, I love being in the water with underwater housing or photographing waves from the water perspective.”

Santa Rosa Beach photographer Jonah Allen captures the shoreline in his large scale image, "Veins of Sand No. 1." [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

All are contingent upon a multitude of factors, such as weather, wind, light, quality of light, time of day, the tide, the swell, the swell direction and sand.

“I have to wait for the confluence of these factors to align to make an image I think is interesting,” Allen said. “Things are fleeting. I only have small windows of time where I can capture something that I think is aesthetically interesting.”

The birth of the iPhone doesn’t make it any easier.

“Everyone is a photographer,” Allen said. “We’re bombarded with thousands of images that are stunning. To make an image nowadays that’s going to stand out, it has to be really interesting, really pleasing to the eye. I try to put myself in really interesting places.”

After capturing and editing images, Allen puts his marketing degree to good use growing his clientele and increasing sales. His mission is to capture emotion in an image and share it with someone in their home, he said.

“You can’t get people to care about something unless they experience it firsthand,” Allen said. “So if my images can basically inspire someone to go out to the ocean or the landscape and feel it firsthand, they might just care about the future of the subject matter I’m photographing.”

Some days he is surfing and not working, and that's cool with him.

“This is an incredible place,” Allen said. “It has so much to offer outside. There’s so much water. If I’m not making images or working and I’m not eating or sleeping, then I’m out on the water. There’s the Gulf. There’s the different bays – Choctawhatchee Bay, the rivers – Choctawhatchee River, which meets all these springs.I love exploring the different bodies of water Florida has to offer.”

His parents have always supported his passions, but now they better understand this one. 

“I definitely think that right when I got out of college and I was exploring for a year, they thought, ‘What are you doing? You’re going to do what now?’” Allen said. “Everyone thought I was throwing my life away, my education. Now the tables have definitely turned. They’re like, ‘Wow, you have a career.’”

Being an artist isn’t easy, he said – nothing in life is. 

“Making money from selling art is not an easy task,” Allen said. “It takes a lot to make things happen and for people to trust you and believe in your work and to collect it. I’m definitely determined. I think one factor of me being an artist is being determined to do my own thing and prove to myself and prove to others with persistence and determination you can make things happen.”

Allen gets emails every day from people impacted by his work. One of the most powerful responses he receives is that it makes them feel a spiritual connection with the divine.

“I think that when you’re alone in the ocean or you’re hovering in this tiny vehicle above the earth, you really realize your scale, your place in the world, how small you really are,” Allen said. “It’s a really humbling feeling – it’s a reminder that this earth is so large and I’m just a tiny, tiny, miniscule, non-important piece of that.”

30A photographer Jonah Allen captures sand patterns and shoreline in his image titled, "Veins of Sand No. 2."  [JONAH ALLEN/CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]

‘Where Waters Meet’

Photographer Jonah Allen is near completion of “Where Waters Meet,” the first volume of multiple photography books he plans to publish. The book will be available for presale soon at jonahallen.com.

“It’s all aerial photographs of the Gulf, but it’s about where these two bodies of water meet,” Allen said. “The two bodies of water are the coastal dune lakes and the Gulf.”

The dune lakes in Walton County are a bit of a geological phenomenon, he said.

“They’ve become an icon of this area,” Allen said. “When they fill up with rain water and Gulf water and brown water, it bursts into the Gulf and flow into the Gulf.”

Allen is fascinated with the dynamic process.

“When they’re outflowing into the Gulf, it changes every hour; It changes every day,” Allen said. “Most of the time it’s not connected. So I did an aerial study of the outflow, flowing into the Gulf.”

Allen is also collaborating with a former biologist to incorporate scientific information into the book’s small chunks of text.

“In Walton County and Bay County, the development has really increased,” Allen said. “The lakes, while they’re pristine now, if we don’t protect them, they could be ruined with all the development going on. Working with the scientist, it’s our goal to paint a picture for people visually, but also with some data of the past, present and future of these lakes.”