“On the Hook” with Mark Hedden —Captivating, Raw, Genius

History is always in the making, and it’s local artists like photographer Mark Hedden who have the ingenious eye to capture it. Hedden’s new show “On The Hook” opens at the Studios of Key West on Thursday, March 7, and is more than a group of photographic portraits, but a broader picture of Key West itself. There is a community living in the shallow waters just off Key West — just as vital to the fabric of Keys life as those on the rock, and it’s captivating.

Over the past year, Hedden has interviewed the residents who live “on the hook,” making their permanent home on boats moored around Key West. Men, women and even children, known as “live-aboards” on vessels of every kind, have created floating neighborhoods. Just yards away from the shore, it could be considered the last affordable housing in the Keys. Full of interesting characters, the community has a dubious reputation for crime, but “reputation” doesn’t paint the full, vibrant picture.

“I wanted to document it for what it is, without prejudice,” said Hedden “I have lived here 25 years, mostly landlocked. It’s a world out there that I have been curious about.” Of course, those who live on the water are saltier than most, and Hedden pursued their stories, and their portraits, free of presumption. For months, two to three times a week, he approached boats not knowing what response he would receive, requesting a photo. He did encounter some negative pushback, requests for anonymity, but for the most part, residents welcomed him aboard.

“It’s no more crime-ridden than any neighborhood in Key West,” said Hedden “We are not vertically segmented. It’s about humanizing a maligned community.” Hedden’s portraits freeze those natural windswept moments that show how easy it is to choose life on the water over land. The fine lines in their tanned faces tell the stories, like how they survived Irma and how they commute to Key West like regular folks to make a living.

If you live by the hook, your life is ruled by your dinghy

“I didn’t want the photos to look like a postcard,” said Hedden. The portraits are striking in gritty black and white. “I’ve always loved black and white work. Stuff like Josef Koudelka’s ‘Gypsies’ and Anders Peterson’s ‘Cafe Lefmitz.’ Moreover, well, anything by Sally Mann.”

A poignant look at the salt life, he leaves the realism on the page — Trump flag and middle fingers too — as well as wrinkles, battered boats and suspicious glances.

In the end, the show is pared down to 25 images and typography of dinghies. “If you live by the hook, your life is ruled by your dinghy. The dinghy is a personal expression out there.”

While the here and now and everyday may seem mundane, later it will be Hedden’s eye for astounding photographs that audiences will point to and say: “Yes, that was the real Key West.”

To pursue the project, Hedden received a matching grant from the Knight Foundation, meaning he raised roughly $14,000 to complete the project, a total of $27,000. He received an Anne McKee Grant, as well as donations from Florida Keys Council of the Arts, and contributions from Holly Merrill, TEAM KAUFELT, Peyton Evans, Judith & Stanley Zabar, Craig Reynolds LandscapeArchitecture, Mary Ellen’s Bar, the Green Parrot, the Marquesa Hotel, Manley deBoer Lumber, Sue Sullivan, Gerald Fritz, Meridyth and Gordon McIntosh, and Diane & Kerry Shelby.

“On The Hook”
Opens Thursday, March 7, 6 to 8 p.m.
Exhibit runs through March 28
hayThe Studios of Key West

Hays Blinckmann
Hays Blinckmann
Hays Blinckmann is an oil painter, author of the novel “In The Salt,” lover of all things German including husband, children and Bundesliga. She spends her free time developing a font for sarcasm, testing foreign wines and failing miserably at home cooking.

Must Read


A snook is breathing new life thanks to the efforts of one Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation officer who noticed that the fish wasn’t...