Focus on bay's beauty

On the Bay

Photographs: An exhibit in Lewes, Del., features 70 years' worth of the finest images of the Chesapeake.

April 20, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

Without science, we'd surely lose the struggle to reclaim our damaged environment. But without the art and beauty we find in nature, we might never sign up to fight.

An opportunity to bathe in bay beauty awaits near the beach in Lewes, Del., where the Edward Carter Gallery has displayed the best exhibit of Chesapeake photographs ever.

Plan to spend an hour or more. And rummage through the bins of unframed prints. The gallery walls can't hold all the best of the dozen artists assembled here, representing 70 years of bay photography.

In no particular order, I'll share some of my favorites. Everything in the show is for sale, for prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

I'm genetically coded to love salt marshes, and Arlington, Va., free-lancer Barbara Southworth's color marshscapes are among the best I've ever seen.

In one, titled "Gut," she captures the green-golden quality of spartina alterniflora as its tips ripen to seed. Another, "Salt Marsh-Thin Sky," glows with ruby-red autumn meadows of salicornia, or glasswort.

My favorite Southworth was in a bin: "Resting Place," a classic little loblolly pine island, widely spaced trunks awash in tawny billows of switchgrass, a refuge for travelers inn the soggy sweeps of lower Shore tidemarsh.

"Tonging Off Oxford," a 1944 photo by H. Robins Hollyday, is one of those unassuming little works you find yourself thinking about days later.

It's a black man in a skiff, hefting a tongful of dripping oysters onto his culling board. Sky, water, unpainted skiff, even the tonger's clothes, are all muted, even drab.

The effect is to accentuate the waterman's stoic face, his muscular arms, the act of his labor. One of the show's best photos, from an artist who spent more than 60 years portraying Talbot County.

Strikingly different from anything else is Easton resident Gunnar Plake's "Chesapeake Front." Printed in panoramic scale on aluminum, it's pure light and color, a gleaming golden band sandwiched between masses of steel-gray sky and water as a weather front approaches.

You can see its appeal to Plake, a native of wide-open Kansas prairies, better known for his impressionistic Western landscapes and skyscapes.

It's a counterpoint to the classic bay photos by the likes of Aubrey Bodine, Marion Warren and David Harp.

Bodine won fame for his thousands of bay pictures between 1927 and 1970. The Sun's old weekly magazine was virtually built around his art.

The show features some of his trademark scenes: morning breaking over a pound net, skipjacks in the harbor at Deal Island. These show his darkroom artistry, including clouds imported from another photo.

But to my eye, the most remarkable Bodine is an unmanipulated shot of oystermen against a stark white house, holding sets of hand tongs that soar past the third-story gables - hard to imagine anyone grappling oysters from such depths as those could reach.

It's hard to pick a favorite from Warren's prolific career, spanning the 1940s to the present. But I've always loved the 1960 shot displayed in Lewes - an old trotliner on the Severn, back to the photographer.

An old outboard hangs, silent, on the stern of his skiff. He is pushing the boat down the baited line with a long sculling oar, which crosses the long handle of his dipnet, poised to net any crab that comes up.

It's a simple, elegant contrast to the legions of power craft that keep the Severn's waters choppy these summers.

Harp's color photos are as painterly in quality as Bodine's black-and-whites. He's a master of light, with shots of an old crabbing boat in a fogbound marsh, a lone cypress reflected in the Pocomoke River, a gorgeous impressionistic shot of mud banks emerging from a marsh creek at low tide.

One of the show's Harp photos is the prettiest portrait of skipjacks ever made, on the Choptank River, opening day of oyster season in the fall of 1990. Like so many scenes in the show, it can never be repeated. There aren't that many of the old boats left.

In the photo, what was almost the entire Chesapeake fleet of oyster dredgers waits, becalmed, for a puff of wind. The early sun turns their sails a delicate, translucent pink, and the light is picked up in even subtler mauves and silvers in the foreground waters.

Recently, I saw a skipjack photo by another artist and asked her whether she was on the Choptank River on opening day 1990 for that shot. The color was too extraordinary to be any other place and time. Indeed, she was.

Another of the show's wonderful plays on light and color and texture is former National Geographic photographer James L. Amos' 1972 shot of menhaden fishermen at Tangier Island, Va.

A backlighted seine is hoisted high, festooned with sun-struck little menhaden. Their captors, the fishing crew, are peripheral, seen through the bright, wet meshes of the net.

The show ends May 20. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Starting next month, hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Lewes features five other art galleries, and they are well worth the trip.

In my youth, the town was known by the smell of its menhaden rendering plants - a third of a billion pounds of the oily fish were landed there annually in the 1950s.

Now it's a retirement and tourism mecca, with loads of historic, restored houses, fine restaurants and charming shops, all within walking distance of each other.

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