Chesapeake Quarterly
The Documentary Eye of Robert de Gast
Two kinds of oystering: a patent tonger with his hydraulic rig. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Two kinds of oystering: a patent tonger with his hydraulic rig is perfectly framed in front of three skipjacks dredging for oysters under sail in this photograph by Robert de Gast, another master of composition. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

THE YEAR A. AUBREY BODINE DIED, a little-known photographer named Robert de Gast published The Oystermen of the Chesapeake, an unusual book created with an approach, style, and vision that would prove more influential with future Bay photographers than Bodine’s more famous and artful images.

De Gast didn’t work in the romantic, pictorial mode of Bodine, but in the realistic documentary tradition of modern photography. Starting in the fall of 1967, de Gast set out to observe oystermen through an entire working season, joining them as they began fitting out their boats and following their work lives through the fall and the 1968 winter harvesting season.

He wanted to capture in detail the labor that went into that harvest in elemental black-and-white images — with none of the attractions of color, no romanticizing of the scene, no “merely pretty pictures.” These he threw out, showing us instead a gritty world of cold mornings, hard work, winter ice, makeshift gear, men huddled over meals in a cabin, watermen as working stiffs rather than folk icons of a disappearing culture.

Watermen watch an oyster dredge hit the deck. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Watermen watch an oyster dredge hit the deck. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

There is mastery in de Gast’s approach, however, a classic mastery of composition, one of those elements that make certain photos stand out immediately and stick in the mind over the years. Composition is the art of arranging the parts of an image, of creating an order out of chaos, an order that leads the eye to the true subject of the photo and focuses the mind on the possible meanings of the image. That’s easier to do when you work like Bodine did, rearranging a scene in the field or restructuring a negative in the darkroom. It’s more difficult to do when a photographer is climbing around a workboat busy with watermen hauling up oysters. De Gast in those conditions never staged a scene, never posed a waterman.

Whenever he went out with oystermen on their skipjacks and tong boats, he carried four cameras hanging from straps slung across his body, and each Nikon 35 mm single-lens reflex camera carried a different lens. In documentary shooting, the readiness is all, and his approach let him react smoothly to the work rhythm on the boats. There would be no time wasted screwing and unscrewing lenses. He could quickly frame, compose, and shoot, switching from camera to camera, from wide angle to medium to telephoto as needed — ready to catch on film the images he was seeing in his head.

A skipjack is loaded down during shell-moving season. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
A skipjack is loaded down during shell-moving season. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Photographers say they make pictures, and de Gast said he always saw the shot before he pressed the button. Aboard a working oyster boat, all the picture making — all the thinking about framing and aperture and shutter speed, all the moving and shifting and camera switching — has to happen fast. The watermen are hauling and culling, the boats are turning, and the weather and the light are changing. The right moment is there — and then it is gone.

De Gast, who was fascinated with the Chesapeake Bay, was not a native. He was born and raised in the Netherlands and moved with his family to Queens Village in New York City where he went to high school and trade school. To improve his English skills he worked on a ranch in Oklahoma. To improve his photography skills he enlisted in the Army and trained as a photographer with the Signal Corps. After his discharge he worked for a while with the photographer Marion E. Warren before launching a career as a commercial photographer around Baltimore and Annapolis. That’s where he fell in love with sailing.

From his work with oystermen over the winter of 1967-1968, de Gast would bring back more than 6,000 photographs to process, print on contact sheets, and then examine slowly, eye pressed to a magnifying loupe. Out of this work came 165 images that de Gast and designer David Ashton arranged into a book with an unusual but brilliantly chosen horizontal shape and spacious layout; together they combined to reflect the wide, flat expanses of the Chesapeake. In the back of the book, de Gast provided a concise, cleanly written essay on the oyster fishery and the men and boats that worked it.

Oysters would never again be as abundant as they were during that winter, and neither would oystermen. The oyster reefs had been dwindling for decades, ravaged by diseases called MSX and Dermo and reduced by historic overharvesting and by the contemporary ongoing dredging and tonging that de Gast documented so faithfully and so artfully. Some watermen would go out of business.

An oyster buyer records a day's catch. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
An oyster buyer records a day's catch. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

De Gast’s book on oystermen would suffer a similar fate. It was one of the first offerings of the International Marine Publishing Company, a new enterprise launched by Roger C. Taylor, the former editor-in-chief of the Naval Institute Press. The new company, however, could print only three thousand copies. Sales would go slowly. The book would go out of print.

But its reputation would grow with the years — at least among those lucky enough to find a copy. It’s the book that inspired David Harp when he began to focus his color photography on the Bay. It’s the book that Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton called “a work of genius, one of the finest books on the Bay ever done.” The work continues to draw admirers. “I don’t think it has ever been surpassed,” said Pete Lesher, chief curator for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, and one of the last people to interview Robert de Gast before he passed away in January 2016.

His work, however, will not pass away. In 2017, the public will be able to see some of de Gast’s photographs displayed at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, Maryland, in an exhibit that Lesher is organizing. The museum will become the final archive for images from The Oystermen of the Chesapeake, the little-known book that remains a collector’s item among Bay photographers.

Four skipjacks raft up to sell their oysters to a buyboat. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
Four skipjacks raft up to sell their oysters to a buyboat. Photograph courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Where to Find Photographs

The final archive for Robert de Gast's Chesapeake Bay imagery about oystermen, lighthouses, and sailing is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where curator Pete Lesher is organizing an exhibit of de Gast's photos scheduled for 2017.

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