BATEAUX: Boats,Ships and the Sea

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I’m a landlubber.  NOT Melville’s “Ishmael”. I like my feet firmly planted on terra firma. Due to an accident of birth, I have always been of a mind that the blood relations forged on solid ground are thicker than those mixed with H2O. And although in my career as a photographer, I have driven, flown over or walked nearly one-third of the globe’s habitable landmass, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the water. For the past several decades I have photographed every form of boat, ship, canoe, warship, and raft, even though I am out of place and always...a passenger.

The ocean remains one of life’s biggest mysteries. While not everyone is brave enough to embark, all paths end at a body of water. Throughout human history, boats have been used for transportation, battle, fishing, cargo, trade, leisure, and sport. Many photographers have specialties but my obsession encompasses the armada.

One of the oldest floating inventions, canoes began as hollowed trees or made of bark stretched on a wood frame. Powered by oars which also facilitated navigation, they are illustrated in Egyptian hieroglyphics. From simple beginnings, canoes have evolved drastically and are still a major mode of transportation today.

As a boy, I was introduced to canoes at summer camp. Thrown into a lake, I also learned to swim, badly, on my own. Counselors encouraged campers to sign boats out with a buddy. I never quite got the hang of propelling myself effortlessly down the river. My course was much like the “random walk” math problem so we meandered around in circles.

I graduated to rowboats, kayaks and rubber rafts with not much better luck. A decade ago I found myself in a huge dugout, being transported by a headhunter’s canoe into the heart of Borneo. The river beneath us was mocha chocolate and we dodged overhanging tree limbs that sporadically struck me in the face. I photographed the Iban tribe for a few days before going back to the mainland, years later I returned to the village. This time the boat ride was deluged by a monsoon. I lost the bailing battle as water rose around my hips. My cameras and I both survived as my tattooed oarsmen navigated the waterway for miles from memory.

It was out of the mouths of great rivers that men first ventured upon the trackless and homeless sea. Seafaring men must have realized the peculiar freedom and opportunities the boat gave them. In order to adventure farther, outfitted with sails to utilize wind-power, pirogues, feluccas, and dhows are found in random corners of the world. I have photographed them in Southeast Asia, on the Nile, and off Zanzibar.

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,Burned in the water; the poop was beaten gold,Purple the sails, and so perfumed, thatThe winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and madeThe water which they beat to follow faster,As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,It beggared all description.-William Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra

Basically, there are two types of sails: Square-rigged which came earlier but were limited by wind only at your back; Lateen or triangular shapes made it possible to tack back and forth into the wind. Commerce and exploration led to the eventual conversion. Tradewinds allowed empire building to barter with cultures separated by vast oceans but, eventually, ships had to turn around and come back. Ship owners, captains, and merchants could not wait for the seasons to change and the winds to reverse in order to bring their goods to market.

The perfection of the yacht’s beauty is that nothing should
Be there for only beauty’s sake.

-John McGregor, The Voyage Alone in the Rob Roy

There is a moment in every sail, whether you are on a ten-foot dinghy or in a fifty-foot-plus cruiser when the physics of wind and water catch hold of you. I fell in love with sailing when I was covering the last America’s Cup campaign in Newport, Rhode Island. Since I had no clue, I called the best sailing photographers for advice and they shared tips to protect my equipment against salt spray as well as what subtleties to aim for.

With one wing in the water, one in the air, sailing is a flight on the edge.

Relying on their experience, I shot from land, rented chase boats and airplanes. Not surprisingly I became mesmerized by the beauty of the twelve-meter yachts silently hovering over the waves. Flat on my back, I documented, using wide-angle lenses, lying directly beneath the prow of the competitors and with telephotos, high above the spinnakers, hanging out of a Robinson helicopter. Although the US lost, after that summer, I learned to duplicate the graceful maneuvers while crewing on anything that floated.

A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.

Historically as sails got larger, so did the vessels. I have talked my way onto multiple voyages aboard many of the world’s tall ships: Christian Radich (Norway), Juan Sebastian de Elcano (Spain). Esmerelda (Chile), etc. These replicated the majestic ships mythologized on the private club walls of stuffy, old men. The first time I witnessed young cadets, in unison, unfurl and rotate the vast, stretches of canvas overhead I was forever bound to the Greek, Phoenician, Egyptian, Viking and Chinese sailor’s ancestors across time and geography.

There are millions of “beauty shots” of three-masted schooners, barques, and cutters. That is why I continue to concentrate on helping viewers “experience” life at sea. This requires a sort of “participatory journalism” and ultimately experiencing life onboard myself. It is a totally different approach, a different point of view.

Crisscrossing oceans and ponds on all manner of floating vehicle, it has become increasingly clear that life on the sea exists between narrow bands of bliss, between dead calms and deadly storms. I have weathered both. The variability and dangers are part of the allure.

Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is the ships alone that cannot
Be taken in by pretences, that will not put up with bad art from their masters.
-Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea

Oars gave way to sails. Sails gave way to motors. On one of the first assignments into which I threw my entire being was documenting the historical Boston Fish Pier. My client expected a few days of cursory coverage but I spent months returning to photograph the ancient rituals, against decaying gunwales and on crowded decks. The series became one of my first long-term projects. In winter the icicles hanging from the yardarms emphasized the harsh conditions and I discovered how to shoot with gloves. In summer the smell of the huge, fresh catch was putrid. I learned to love it.

Despite all the advantages the seas afford civilizations, their greatest resources are directed at conflict. War has commanded the biggest revenues and technological changes throughout history. And seemingly sophisticated societies have developed triremes, battleships and submarines to destroy their enemies.

Princess Diana died the same day I first tailhook-landed on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. They are floating metropolises, moved by harnessed nuclear energy. Onboard are nearly battalions of uniformed combatants, dozens of the most advanced and expensive flying machines known to man, restaurants, hospitals, and weapons that can decimate entire nations.

The US Atlantic fleet was involved in war games and I hitched a ride. To chase mesomorph-marine troops in land assaults, I worked out for months. That made the ordeal bearable but I still got lost in the labyrinth of decks, mess halls, and cabins.

Most people take pictures of fashion models or landscapes or colorful flowers but boats push back. As part of the eternal human condition, they are just as beautiful as pretty girls but require a different solution every time. The pictures are as primal as history while as contemporary as any technology. Something magical happens at the edge where land meets sea.
And you can never exhaust the photography.


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About This Blog

blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.