Picturing local fishing heritage for international audience

By Juliette Laaka | Dec 26, 2012
Photo by: Antonia Small "Pollock," captured in a photograph by Antonia Small, is among the more than two dozen groundfish species fished in the Gulf of Maine.

St. George — Antonia Small developed an interest in photography through her father, Comstock, a flight reconnaissance photographer during World War II. Sixty years later, like her father, Small is capturing images to tell the story of place.

"I grew up watching slide shows," she said.

The people she is devoted to documenting are the fishermen of Port Clyde — her neighbors and friends in the village she has lived in for 10 years. A Maine native who grew up in Western Massachusetts, Small came back to stay because of her father's last request to return home to Maine. Inspired by the work and field notes of photographer Dorothea Lange, Small started photographing activity at the wharf and processing plant in St. George and began to accumulate a collection of photographs.

"It felt important to have a record of who these guys were and what they were trying to do," she said.

Small has particularly focused on the inception of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, the country's first community-supported fishery. CSFs link fishermen to the local market and attempt to maintain a fair price as well as support the sustainability of an industry.

Small shoots with a film camera and develops the black and white images in her basement dark room. She said people tell her the sound of winding film and the quick snap of the shutter takes them back 20, 30, sometimes 50, years.

The photos might never have been widely viewed but Small reconnected with an old friend, thousands of miles away, through a wildly different collaboration.

Small secured an exhibit of her working waterfront photographs abroad, in Lille, France, from working on a play with former roommate Esther Mollo, when the two were students in Paris. An active visual and physical artist, Small, at age 18, studied theater, dance and mime under actor Marcel Marceau in Paris. She arrived in France with little language instruction, but learned quickly in the first year abroad "by living it and struggling."

"It was an intense education and I came home feeling overwhelmed — but it was great," she said.

Through a range of outlets including teaching, photojournalism, landscape design and dance instruction, Small has continued to work creatively.

Mollo, also an artist and living in Lille, said she was using photography and film in her current work, a play about the life of Mary Shelley during the time Shelley wrote "Frankenstein." Mollo, viewing Small's photography work, said she appreciated her aesthetic and offered a collaborative opportunity.

Through a grant from French government, Esther traveled to Port Clyde to work with Small. The friends hadn't seen each other in 20 years. Small took images designed to be projected onto the body of an actor using an infrared camera. Returning to Europe, Mollo met with producers at the Lille cultural center, Maison Folie Beaulieu, to seek support for her production, titled "Mary's Baby." While there, the director of the center noticed a distinctive characteristic of Small's photography. He was especially intrigued with the photos of Maine fishermen as he said the French don't often see images of working Americans — just constant snap shots of celebrities.

Over the past few weeks, Small has sent the director 70 photographs from her collection to choose from for an exhibit featuring her work. The director requested more images of people, but she told him the absence and starkness is as important as the fishermen — depicting the uncertain future of the fishing industry.

"There just aren't a lot of people here," she said.

Another component of the photographs and the landscape of Maine that fascinated the director was fog. During various states of fog, Small would run down to the same spot on the wharf to catch the scene. Those photos will be arranged to morph and transition as people move toward them in the gallery, simulating fog and providing the “heavy” visual experience for viewers, as if they were looking across the water.

Toward the end of January, Small will travel to Northern France to hang the exhibit before the opening show in early February. She said her subjects, the fishermen of Port Clyde, are excited about her photos traveling, asking facetiously if they are needed for a panel discussion — "which would be really cool," she said. Small will remain in France for a few additional weeks to work on the theater production with Mollo.

Small said she is hopeful the fishing heritage of Maine continues, sustaining the livelihoods and pride of people on the coast. She said she doesn’t want Port Clyde to become a museum of what was.

"As I'm watching this year happen, sitting with the guys on the dock, they're talking about the shrimp season," she added.

The allowable shrimp catch set for this winter is a quarter of what it last season. Many fishermen are frustrated and worry about the survival of the industry or simply how to pay the oil bill. Small was planning to be on board for a trip to get some shots but with the slashed days, she will be unable to go.

"That's been the trick — to make it beautiful, make it something I care about, and tell the story," she said. "It's really important as they're doing something brave and strange and new."

Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.