Five Photographers Focus on the Chesapeake
A. Aubrey Bodine. Photograph, Axel Bahnsen
A. Aubrey Bodine, working with his Linhof 5"x7" view camera and tripod, gets ready to make another photograph of Baltimore Harbor. Photograph, Axel Bahnsen

WHO CREATED THE MOST MEMORABLE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE CHESAPEAKE? Everybody who visits the Bay with a smart phone or point-and-shoot camera is a photographer, but only a few of us produce pictures that the rest of us still love to look at years later.

Aubrey Bodine gave us images of the Bay that last. And so did Marion E. Warren and Robert de Gast, two photographers who, like Bodine, gave us the Chesapeake Bay in classic black and white. And among living photographers, David Harp and Jay Fleming are giving us the contemporary Bay in color images that will outlast their working lives.

How did they do it? These photographers all made major professional commitments at some point in their careers to focus their technical and artistic skills on the Chesapeake Bay. All produced memorable photographs and gathered them in books. Four of them published several books featuring the Bay. The fifth, Jay Fleming, put out his first book earlier this year.

In their work, each of these photographers has helped us see the Bay — at least a piece of it, at least for a moment in time — through a unique, personal vision. Each captured original images that illuminate something essential about the estuary, about the birds and fish and plants that live there, about the people who venture out on its waters for profit, personal adventure, or inspiration in the presence of nature.

Marine scientists, of course, also venture out on the Chesapeake for research, and their work also helps us "see" the estuary — by helping us understand it. They work in disciplines that reveal essential elements of the ecosystem, including food webs, life cycles of fish and birds, the movement of water masses, the recurrence of seasonal weather patterns, and the impacts of global climate changes. Their research findings are usually the focus of our magazine, Chesapeake Quarterly, where we try to explain the science that is helping us "see" the invisible forces, natural and human, that are shaping and altering the estuary.

Photographers of the Chesapeake, on the other hand, are giving us the visible estuary, but in vivid pieces. When their work is exceptional, when it focuses often and over time on this region, their images add up, they help the rest of us see and understand the ecosystem at an emotional level. When we see the beauty and drama of our Bay and the multiplicity of ways men and women and birds and fish and water and weather all interact, we feel the connection — and the importance of preserving such a place. That's why a science program like Maryland Sea Grant has — since it began 40 years ago — frequently featured the work of photographers like these in our publications and films.

As they set about their work, each of these Bay photographers — Bodine, de Gast, Warren, Harp, and Fleming — brought more than expensive cameras and excellent lenses to the scene he was working. Each brought a way of thinking that became his way of seeing his subject. That way of thinking included technical knowledge of cameras and lenses and of all the steps of processing and preparing and presenting photographs to the world. But it also included his experience of life and his ideas about art and beauty and nature and the significance of what was before him.

These photographers brought different experiences to bear on their work on the Chesapeake. Three of them were born in the region, two migrated here from elsewhere, two began their professional lives at newspapers, two got some early training in the military, two are sons of photographers.

As a result, their work captures the Bay in very different ways. Art historians talk about two kinds of photographers: the romantics who focus on self-expression, and the realists who focus on exploring the world in front of them. The Baltimore pictorial photographer A. Aubrey Bodine, for example, was clearly working in the romantic, self-expressive tradition where the true subject of a picture is the artist's sensibility; his ideas about art or nature are more important than the reality of the scene in front of him. The romantic photographer is present in every picture, calling attention to the art in his presentation.

Working in the realistic, documentary tradition, on the other hand, photographers like Robert de Gast set a different goal: revealing the details of the scene in front of them. There is always self-expression and artfulness in the way the realists create images that attract our interest, but their true goal is to focus our attention on the Bay rather than on themselves and their ideas about art.

Every realist is a bit of a romantic — and vice versa. And both kinds have given us and — are still giving us — memorable visions of the Chesapeake.

More Bay Photography

In the print issue of our magazine, we were able to feature only a few of the talented photographers who have worked or are currently working on the Chesapeake Bay. On our website, however, you can find memorable imagery from a number of excellent photographers that Maryland Sea Grant has been fortunate enough to work with over the years. Skip Brown, for example, created striking black-and-white images of the Chesapeake fisheries as a new graduate starting on a professional career. He continues to take color photos for us. Michael Eversmier and Nick Caloyianis have brought us beautiful images of the underwater world of Chesapeake Bay.

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