Silver Springs photographer Bruce Mozert blazed underwater trails
Published: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 10:54 p.m.
Photographer Bruce Mozert sat in his Ocala studio recently and reminisced over photos scattered across his desks and covering the walls like wallpaper. At 96, Mozert's lined face brightened as he spoke about his 30-year career as Silver Springs' official photographer and the unconventional methods for which he became known.
One of the highlights of Mozert's career was his design of an underwater camera housing that he made out of sheet metal, soldering wire, Plexiglas and a few nails and screws. Mozert first made the waterproof box-shaped casing in the 1930s, while visiting Silver Springs during the filming of the "Tarzan" movies.
"I saw that crystal clear water and that's how I got into my underwater work," said Mozert, who also planned to shoot photos of the stars who were coming to Silver Springs.
His underwater housing, however, needed one more part to make it complete.
"I went out in the backyard of Silver Springs one morning after I had made the camera case and I found an old inner tube," Mozert recalled. "That was back when they were made out of real rubber. I fitted it on my arm and my arm fit tight. I attached it to the housing and took it down in the water. Johnny Weissmuller was there. They all laughed at me, but all 12 pictures came out clear. They ended up sending them to Hollywood."
Mozert later designed another housing to accommodate a movie camera and created an underwater electronic strobe light system.
Named by divephotoguide.com as being among the pioneers of underwater photography, Mozert is listed along with William Thompson, who took the first underwater pictures in 1856, and Frenchman Louis Boutan, whose photo of a hardhat diver was the first underwater photo ever published.
As for his subject matter, Mozert never settled for the mundane. While shooting an ad for Mercury Marine, he arranged for a cabin cruiser to be hoisted into his backyard swimming pool. At Silver Springs, he posed attractive models in the main spring with a variety of weighted props, including kitchen stoves, lawnmowers and bathtubs. He posed his subjects shooting arrows at targets, playing golf, eating a picnic lunch and toying with fish.
If something didn't work, he found a substitute. A couple of Alka Seltzer tablets gave the impression of bubbles ascending from a champagne glass. A splash of evaporated milk resembled smoke rising from a barbecue grill.
While Mozert was taking underwater photos for a Burma Shave commercial, the shaving cream dissolved before he could take the picture. To Mozert, it was no problem.
"Ricou (Browning) came down with a beard on," Mozert recalled. "I said, ‘Go up to the shop and get some cold cream.' He smeared that on and the photo went into a national ad."
Sometimes Mozert even manipulated wildlife for the sake of a photo. Using a trail of peanuts, he lured a squirrel to look through a pair of eyeglasses at a book. Then, there was "Big John, the talking bass" that moved too fast for a still shot.
"We'd hold him out of the water long enough to get him tired, then we'd leave him go and he'd swim nice and slow and we'd get lots of pictures," Mozert said.
Mozert stumbled into the world of photography at a young age. Born Robert Bruce Mozert on Nov. 24, 1916, in Newark, Ohio, he moved with his family to a chicken farm in Scranton, Pa., while he was a youngster. After graduating from high school, he drove a coal truck. But, after only a couple runs, he accepted an invitation from his sister Zoe to move to New York City. Zoe, a professional model, introduced young Bruce to noted "Life Magazine" photographer Victor DePalma, who hired Bruce as a film developer for $3 a week. Within a year, Mozert was shooting his own pictures.
"I took to it like a duck to water," Mozert said. "Then, I started working for Black Star (photo agency) and got some odd-ball jobs. I got a whole front cover of a painter painting the Williamsburg Bridge. I didn't have any sense back then. I went out on those cables over the Hudson River and took the pictures. The daring things I did was how I got ahead so fast."
In 1938, Mozert was on his way to Miami to complete a photo history of ladies' shoes. During a stop in St. Augustine, he heard that a film crew was making "Tarzan" movies at Silver Springs. He dropped everything, came to Ocala and got a job there. Except for a brief stint in the Air Force, where he learned aerial photography, Mozert was Silver Springs' official photographer for more than 30 years. He also opened his own shop nearby and did a variety of picture-taking on land, under the sea and in the air.
Evelyn Yorlano, Mozert's office manager for 36 years, said she'll never forget when Mozert took her up in his Cessna 182 Skylane so he could take aerial photographs of Marion County.
"He was letting go of the controls and reaching in the back seat for his camera," she said. "While he was hanging out of the plane, I was holding the steering wheel. If he said tip it, I tipped it. With one hand, I'm holding the controls. With the other hand, I'm holding onto his belt."
During Mozert's career at Silver Springs, he shot photos of such notables as Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Lloyd Bridges and Richard Egan.
"The photos I shot of Jayne Mansfield went worldwide," Mozert said. "She was nobody until she came to Silver Springs, and boy did she play up the photography."
For his underwater work, Mozert often shot professional models with a variety of props. Among his "pin-up girls" was Ginger Stanley (now Hallowell), who also was a stunt swimmer for the first two "Creature from the Black Lagoon" movies.
Hallowell, now of Orlando, recalled how Mozert set up the scenes for visiting movie companies.
"He would go down before they ever got there and take still photographs of every scene," Hallowell said.
They also teamed up for numerous advertisements.
"Mostly, it was doing things underwater that were usually done on land — a circus, a fashion show, a beauty contest, a picnic," Hallowell said. "We would hold our breath and go down and spread the picnic cloth and all the things that went on it, all we could do on a breath of air. Then, we would come up and take another breath. We did it frame-by-frame. It would appear as if we did it all at one time but, actually, we would be down there for an entire day to get one minute of film."
After Hallowell left to be married, Ocalan Betty Frazee (now Haskins) worked at Silver Springs from 1957 to 1960. A beauty pageant queen, she also did stunt swimming for the "Sea Hunt" series and several movies, including Jerry Lewis' "Don't Give Up the Ship."
"Bruce just told me what to do and I did it," Haskins said. "We had tons of funny experiences. He had me eating a banana underwater. I drank a Coke, and I smoked a fake cigarette. Another time, they had a wrestling match underwater. The wrestlers were two big, burly guys, Vernon Arnette and Lee Popple, and I was the underwater referee. I wore a striped outfit. It actually made Parade Magazine."
A few years ago, Mozert's unique style caught the eye of Gary Monroe, a professor of fine arts and photography at Daytona State College and author of the University Press of Florida book "Silver Springs; the Underwater Photography of Bruce Mozert."
Monroe said he was doing research for a book about the St. Johns River when he was drawn to Silver Springs and spotted Mozert's work.
"I was poking around the gift shop and saw fading 8-by-10 glossies tacked to a wall, and they were his," Monroe recalled. "I was just haunted by his amazing photographs of Silver Springs, so I went to his shop and said I would like to write a book about them. He thought I was kidding. I told him, ‘I think if your photos were in Manhattan galleries, they could sell for $3,500.' He rolled off his chair in hysterics. To him, the pictures were worth one dollar. He had no idea that he had created and was sitting on a treasure trove, a cultural artifact that is invaluable to our state's cultural heritage."
Mozert and Norma, his wife of 27 years, live in Ocala. He and his first wife, the late Elizabeth Dinkins Mozert, had three sons, who are deceased.
When the state takes over the park on Oct. 1, Mozert said he would like to repeat what he did years ago when he shot pictures of people on the jungle cruise and glass-bottom boats, slipped the photos in a folder and sold them for $3 each.
"I'd like to have a shop in the middle and shoot color pictures with glass bottom boats in the background," he said. "When people walk back, they'll see their pictures there."