The Magic of Stiltsville U.S.A.

By Barbara Goldman

From an early age, photographer Matt Stock wanted to change the world.  He just didn’t know how he’d do it.  He took the traditional path of attending medical school but soon realized that while the medical arts keep the engine of society running smoothly, it is the traditional arts that build and feed the engine.  He always saw the world differently, and through the lens of a camera realized that his passion in life lay in photography and not medicine. He began pursuing his career in fine art and architectural photography by studying at the renowned Miami Ad School on Miami Beach.



Miami’s nickname is the Magic City and Stock has caught that magic in one of his most personal projects.  Looking across Biscayne Bay, there are houses that seemingly float on water.  This is no mirage.  Since the early 1930s, a collection of stilt houses stands ten miles off the coast of downtown Miami and is called “Stiltsville.”  At one point, there were twenty-seven houses straddling the Biscayne Channel. Through the years, they have served as get-away homes, gambling clubs, fishing shacks, or for a tête-à-tête.  But after nearly a century of jealous wives, combined with the corrosive force of the Atlantic Ocean and unregulated building materials, only seven houses remain today. Stock made a promise to himself that he would preserve what was left of Stiltsville photographically, no matter what it took.  Little did he know how much this project would come to consume  him and even change his perspective on photography itself.



With this project, Stock envisioned nighttime environmental portraits of the houses interacting with their surroundings in an organic and non-confrontational way.  He wanted the surrounding water to be a part of the scene, just as a lawn or sidewalk would be if he were shooting in a neighborhood on dry land. The sky, the sea, and even the light pollution from Miami were all elements that blended together to create images of tonal and color balance. Because these houses are ten miles out into the middle of the ocean, there is no electricity and there are no light sources.  Every lighting element needed to be transported.  Stock specializes in photography using the complex technique of “painting with light.”  This requires hundreds of exposures shot over several hours with the exposures layered together to create one seamless hyper-real image in post-production. The final images took several hours to illuminate the various elements in the scene using multiple hand-held lights of varying wattage.



To create the final composition, Stock had to wade around each house as far as he could before the water became too deep to stand comfortably, which meant a little more than four feet. He then  would sink a six-foot aluminum ladder into a sandbar next to the house, mount his camera to the ladder with a special clamp, compose the image and then wait. In order to utilize the technique “painting with light,” complete darkness is needed.  Many hours of standing alone in dark water up to his chest were required. For some of these images, up to five assistants with hand-held lights illuminating different aspects of the subject at different times had to help out.


Stock’s painting with light also added an additional benefit by illuminating the water with light and utilizing very long exposures (30 seconds to five minutes). Through painting with light, he was able to reveal the underlying verdant turtle grass to the camera’s sensor and create the trails of green seen in the images.


The Stiltsville project presented tremendous physical challenges, to say the least.  “When NASA trains and prepares their astronauts for space travel, they put them in dark underwater conditions and ask them to perform the same tasks  on the Moon or in the International Space Station. I now see why,” says Stock.  Photographing in the ocean at night was one of the most foreign environments he has worked in professionally. He had two weeks to complete this project because of permit constraints.  In that short time, many problems arose that would either make or break each day’s shooting session.  This type of shooting would be complicated on dry land, where he had access to spare gear and electricity.  In the ocean he had the constant fear of falling while carrying expensive gear through waist-deep water at night in an area renowned for dangerous sharks, along with Miami’s unpredictable weather.


When shooting one of the houses, the “Miami Springs Power Boat Club” house, with five assistants, gale force winds made communication nearly impossible between for all of them.  He had just one night to make the shoot.  After several frustrating attempts to direct with hand gestures, he ended up using his main hand-held light to get each assistant’s attention and then used the same light to point out where he wanted them to aim their lights


Getting eaten alive is not usually an occupational hazard but Stiltsville is in an area renowned for its healthy shark population, including hammerhead, lemon and the very dangerous bull shark. Biscayne Channel, where Stiltsville lies, is the main bottleneck of water separating Biscayne Bay from the Atlantic Ocean and a gateway for large fish.  The splashing of six adults in the water after sunset using very bright lights certainly piqued their interest, and the fact that sharks feed at night was not lost on them either.  At least once during every photo session, when standing alone in the water a tail would hit the water with a thwap and splash just outside the range of  Stock’s lights, and he knew it was a very large fish.  On one occasion while photographing the “Balwin Sessions” house from the water, a six-foot shark seemed to be attracted to the lights and the noise.  For the rest of the evening, they could hear the shark come in repeatedly to investigate.  When confronted with the combined blinding power of the lights, it would swim away only to return later.  From that day on, Stock always brought a six-foot trident fishing spear, even though it was a bit primitive and probably an inefficient shark deterrent.  Eventually, he was able to get the final shots he needed.


His last challenge was what he likes to call the Jeopardy challenge. When he photographed the A-frame house in the series, he needed a very long exposure for the background shot.  His Nikon D700 has a fixed shutter speed as long as 30 seconds, but he required something far longer.  He calculated a two-minute exposure to get the shot he wanted and would set his camera to “bulb”, and then closed the shutter at the two-minute mark.  Unfortunately, he did not have a watch with a face that he could read in the dark and he  does not carry a phone in the water.  As a lifelong Jeopardy fan, he knew their  theme song was exactly 30 seconds long.  He and his assistants harmonized four rounds of the Jeopardy theme song to ensure that the shutter was open long enough.  When the shot was done, he was only off by 2.1 seconds but he got the shot.  Stock would like to take this opportunity to thank Alex Trebek.



Stock has plans for a fundraising gallery exhibition in the Miami area with the Stiltsville series. The images will be used in conjunction with the Stiltsville Trust, a non-profit organization, to raise awareness about the houses and to advocate for their historical and cultural preservation.  Stock has also started selling these photographs to private collectors.


Stock has always had an interest in bringing untold stories into the limelight, whether it is the under-appreciated history of a forgotten building or the story of those who cannot speak for themselves.  He actively participates with the Special Olympics as an official photographer and has worked with various agencies using his art to raise awareness about such diverse issues as homelessness, women in distress and orphaned children awaiting adoption in Miami.


We are so glad Matt Stock is alive and well to show and tell the story of Stiltsville. He has been recognized by his photographic peers for his unique artistic efforts, winning several awards including an Honorable Mention in the prestigious 2010 International Photography Awards.  See more of Stiltsville and the wonderful world of Matt Stock’s photography at his site,




PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue

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