Check out these rarely seen vintage photos of fishermen, boats and workaday life
SEARSPORT — In 2012, National Fisherman, a preeminent national magazine detailing life in the commercial fishing industry, donated the publication’s entire pre-digital photographic archive to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. It was a significant gift, a visual record of every nuance of American commercial fishing during four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and it’s taken museum staff nearly five years to digitize, catalog and publish the images to their website, in groups of 5,000 items.
Now, the National Fisherman Collection is available to the public.
We have selected five photos to tell the stories of people and scenes from daily life, long forgotten, with two perspectives. The first perspective provides context and history; Penobscot Marine Museum Curator Ben Fuller provided some of this commentary, while some was pulled from the original photo descriptions. The second perspective — the art of the photograph — comes from one of the museum’s photo archivists, Matt Wheeler.
Stop Seining (photo by Red Boutilier)
Ben: When a net was strung across the mouth of a cove (as here, in Greenland Cove, ME) to trap a school, it was called “stop seining.” If a very large school was trapped, it could take several sardine carriers many trips to get the fish to the nearest cannery. The crew shown in this 1962 photo, tending the carrier Muriel (at left), was from nearby New Harbor. Pictured left to right are Caleb K.O. McLain, Levi Hupper, Don Riley, Capt. Lee Riley, and “Biscuit” McFarland. A few years later, McLain was one of four men lost during a stormy night disaster off Monhegan Island.
Reader comment: Upper right hand side of photo is “Uncle” Ford Davis from Port Clyde, ME, in a double ender with hi-jack oarlocks. He was a semi-retired lobster fisherman in his older years.—Russell Anderson, Waldoboro.
Matt: A wriggling catch of sardines lies pursed up between the carrier and the purse boat; their mass of white bellies is almost an abstraction. The curvature of the net edges and the gunwales of the boat are well-framed between the two sweeps of the cork line. The strain in the arms and on the face of the fisherman in the center is palpable, and in humorous contrast to the easy stance of the men standing by in the bow.
Setting a Pot (photo by Bryan Hitchcock; used by permission of the photographer)
Description: Bryan Hitchcock was aboard the Elsie D when he captured this shot. As he puts it: "The fisherman's name is Skip Collins. He was Rusty Court's sternman. The time was January 1970. The boat's name was Elsie D, named for Rusty's mother, I believe. We were in an area just inside of a piece of bottom called Horn's Hole. The islands in the background are Burnt (right) and Allen's (left) Islands. Jamie Wyeth owned Burnt Island and his mother, Betsy, owned Allen's a few years after this shot was taken."
Matt: Quick reflexes, luck and a good vantage produced this photograph. The pot seems to float against the featureless sky, though the arc of the pot line testifies to its motion. The contrast in the image is dramatic—the figure and the flying trap are half lit by the morning sun, and half steeped in shadow. The competing angles of the fisherman's arms and the exhaust pipe are terrific, and you have to love the top knot on that cap.
Bait Fishing (photo by Ellen Banner; used by permission of the photographer)
Description: Mello Boy was a bait boat owned by Skip Sadow, who also ran Port San Luis Sport Fishing, a charter company. She was used to catch anchovies, which the crew (Dan Courtice, left; Capt. George Grafft, right) kept live in bait wells in the harbor and sold direct to tuna trawlers. [The museum thanks Dan Courtice for providing descriptive information for the photo]
Matt: This photo has great balance—the two figures, the gleaming arc of the reel flanking the lampara net, the bunches of net gripped by the men, the two rows of white floats receding out behind the boat where they merge into the circular reach of the cork line in the water. The fishermen's intent expressions, the tension in their arms, and the motion blur in the immediate foreground suggest the danger inherent in this occupation. Note the reflection of the man on the right in the wet surface of the reel on the left.
Launch Day (photo by Red Boutilier)
Ben: Red Boutilier took this picture of "Pete" Culler, noted designer and builder of traditional boats, at the launch of the Win Lash-built schooner Joseph W. Russell. In the original, Culler posed onboard among the crew.
Matt: The photographer printed this detail from a larger scene—the big 4-inch-by-5-inch negative he started with gave him the latitude to crop aggressively—resulting in a fairly striking portrait. The plaid cap and jacket create a diagonal symmetry from top to bottom in the frame. The set of the man’s jaw against his pipe and his unflinching gaze imply a resolute character. He’s flanked by someone on his right, but all we see is a shoulder and the shadow of a head. At right, a wisp of hair from his other neighbor strays comically into the frame.
Georgina (photo by Red Boutilier)
Description: Georgianna was a 1970s sail trawler that, during a journey in the late 1960s from Antigua to Boothbay, tangled with a nor’easter, as evidenced by her crushed gunwale and davit. Crewman James Bristol of Kingston, St. Vincent, poses here on the deck of the then 40-year-old vessel, whose passages between the two ports were excerpted on film for the documentary, Sail to Glory.
Matt: The plethora of lines in the image is striking. They converge, diverge, replicate—the pilings, stays, deck planks, and so on. Then there’s the composite line suggested by the broken gunwale and davit, the man’s leg, and the boom. This divides the frame diagonally—nicely balanced. It all converges in the figure of the man, who straddles this division, and is a study in contrast himself, with his dark skin and clothing, black boots and hair, and white sweater.
To see more photos and to learn about the back story of the Featured Photo of the Week visit: penobscotmarinemuseum.org/national-fisherman
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org