Window on the water world

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jan 11, 2017
Photo by: U.S. Fish Commission (formerly the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries) Two purse boats tighten up a seine-full of menhaden between them. This photo was taken from the deck of a menhaden steamer, the larger boat that hauls the catch back to port. Menhaden are used as a bait fish and also to produce meal and oil. This was likely shot near Virginia.

Searsport — Like many historical museums, Penobscot Marine Museum, located on a downtown Searsport campus of 12 buildings, is primarily a keeper and interpreter of objects, tangible evidence of the past — in PMM’s case, the storied maritime culture of Penobscot Bay. But in recent years, the museum has become keeper, preserver and source of something perhaps even more compelling — a true window on the past, opened via digitized documentary photography.

PMM’s Eastern Illustrating & Publishing collection is known around the state and beyond, thanks to the popular, custom-tailored to specific towns/counties “Through Eastern’s Eye” exhibitions and slideshow talks. Its glass negatives and the rural-life stories they tell have been joined by other photography collections in PMM's growing photo archives, overseen by Kevin Johnson and fellow photo archivist Matt Wheeler; digitized with the help of volunteers, and organized by the museum’s cataloging staff. The results can be viewed and searched online, and many images can be ordered as prints.

Latest to hit the museum’s collection of online photo databases is a new batch of images from National Fisherman, a periodical that consolidated early regional fishing papers, notably Atlantic Fisherman (whose photographs also reside at PMM). This second posting of National Fisherman images — the first was last spring — offers some 5,000 digitized photographs.

“It’s an incredible amount of work to digitize and database a collection this large,” said Wheeler, project manager for the National Fisherman collection. “Another museum might have decided to tackle only pieces of a catalog like this, but we have an established history of digitizing collections from front to back.”

Wheeler lauded the team dedicated to the project, including digital capture volunteers Chris Olson and Ellen Zachary, and cataloging staff Cathy Pollari, Faith Garrold and Amanda Strusz.

This latest collection began in talks between PMM Curator Ben Fuller and Diversified Communications in Portland, parent company of National Fisherman, about the possibility of the magazine’s photo print archive coming to the museum. After things were finalized in 2012, Johnson and Wheeler drove down, loaded four tall filing cabinets full of vintage photographs into their van and returned to the Midcoast. Because grant money would be needed, they quickly had to get a handle on what they’d gotten themselves into, Wheeler said.

“Fuller and I independently came up with the same estimate — around 20,000 — by counting the number of objects in a foot-high stack of folders, then counting the total linear feet in all 16 drawers,” he said.

They applied to a couple of federal agencies for funding to cover the costs of digitizing and cataloging the collection (staff time, archival sleeves and storage boxes, new digitization equipment, hosting fees, etc.). Making the argument for the importance of these photographs proved to be enlightening, not just for the grant-writing process, but also for seeing how this body of work, a document of the past, matters for the present and the future.

“We started articulating a story told here, which has to do with evolving technology, a growing world population, and ultimately a planetary impact on a great many species of animals,” Wheeler said. “It’s interesting how a body of photographs made for one purpose over time can serve another.”

And they’re good photographs, most focused on the specifics of the industrial fisheries, but a good chunk that will provoke broader interest. The magazine covered a lot of ground, reporting on environmental issues, Coast Guard operations, recreational boating and so on, said Wheeler. And, like other magazine collections with which Fuller has worked, he found there are few bad apples in this barrel.

“Photographers sent National Fisherman good images. Any bad ones didn’t get saved,” Fuller said.

Over the next couple of years, PMM was awarded generous grants by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C., by the National Park Service, through its National Maritime Heritage Grant program, and by a private foundation.

The National Fisherman collection documents in detail the advent of electronics and its importance to fishing, as it does the revolution in gear made possible by petroleum-based line for nets, and long lines in the decades after World War II, said Fuller.

“We see the importance of the strides in engine technology and hydraulics, as well as the shift to aluminum, fiberglass and, for larger vessels, steel,” he said.

At the same time, National Fisherman covered the kinds of recreational boats not written about in the popular boating press of the 1970s through ‘90s, including rowboats, small, modest sailboats and powerboats with a strong bent toward owner-building and traditional types, Fuller said. And National Fisherman lives up to its name, the archive reveals.

“There is material here from all over the United States, with the Pacific Northwest and Alaska being especially strong,” Fuller said. “Foreign fisheries from Canada and Europe are also documented.”

Licensing images and selling reproductions has become an important revenue stream for PMM in this age where nonprofits have to get creative, Wheeler said.

“With collections like National Fisherman, though, we have to be super-careful, because we’re dealing with the work of creators who are still living, and this stuff was all licensed by the photographers for one-time use,” Wheeler said.

So the museum is proceeding carefully on all fronts. As some of the photographers or their heirs are still living, photos used with this article are by permission where noted; all other photos are courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

The online interface at penobscotmarinemuseum.org/national-fisherman was designed to showcase the collection by making it easy to search by topic. An interface grouping images by Coast Guard district is in the works, Fuller said, and all 20,000 photographs are slated to be online later this year. A further-ahead goal is getting the National Fisherman magazine itself online.

“Like most newspapers, it was printed on highly acidic paper, which, even though only a few decades old, is already becoming embrittled,” he said.

The museum will be presenting at the annual Conference of the Council of American Maritime Museums this April in San Francisco to further put the word out about the collection and what PMM is doing with it. But there’s no need to travel across the country or to wait until spring to experience the archives.

“There are a lot of powerful images here, and we’re pleased to share this with the world,” Wheeler said. “This is a story that affects us all — it’s just where we find ourselves.”

To browse PMM's extensive photo archive, visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.

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