`Oystermen' shows the art of the harvest

ON THE BAY

Book: Photos capture the unforgettable culture and ecosystem of what was a shellfish haven.

April 08, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

"THERE'LL ALWAYS be arsters. But there might be a time when there won't be neither arstermen."

-The Oystermen of the Chesapeake by Robert de Gast

The year was 1968. Oysters were still king of the Maryland seafood industry, and the bay still years away from showing major environmental decline.

A young photographer, who immigrated to Annapolis from the Netherlands, was haunting every watermen's harbor in Maryland, shooting nearly every day for a year.

He produced a work of genius, one of the finest books on the bay ever done. His black-and-white photographs captured the elemental nature of watermen and their work better than color ever could.

Few have seen Robert de Gast's classic. Only 2,000 copies of The Oystermen were printed. Published in Maine, it had minimal distribution and soon went out of print. A copy rarely turns up, even at used booksellers.

Author and photographer de Gast, and the book's equally brilliant designer, Baltimorean David Ashton, elegantly chronicled the close of an era, when Maryland's Chesapeake was one of the world's great fisheries.

Four thousand Maryland oystermen were harvesting about 3 million bushels a year when de Gast sailed with them - lately, a few hundred catch 60,000 bushels or less.

And most of that is now taken by powered work boats dragging a dredge, versus the sailing skipjacks and the hand tongers who dominated from the 1800s through de Gast's year on the bay.

Oystering is more efficient now, just as a paint roller covers more territory than a portraitist's brush - but much of the art is gone.

It's hard to describe some 120 pages of photographs in words. But consider how de Gast and Ashton portray "nipperin'." Nippering is where a lone oysterman stands on the bow of his little skiff with miniature tongs, shoving the skiff to and fro with the nippers across shallow, clear, calm coves, spying and plucking single, perfect oysters as he goes.

Oystermen's nipperin' photo occupies a double-page spread in the coffee-table book. Nearly half the spread shows only black, of which a tiny corner has, in white letters, this terse waterman's quote, the likes of which read like poetry throughout the book:

"Days like this when there

Ain't neither breath,

I go nipperin' for cove arsters.

Pick 'em up single for the

roast at the church."

The remainder of the spread is a vast, silken monochrome of water, edged at the top by the merest line of low, dark shore. A few stark poles of an old dock are all that break this essential Chesapeake horizontality.

That and the subject of the photo, the nipperin' oysterman who appears in silhouette, less than a half-inch high, far off in the distance. He is anything but an afterthought; this daring, outrageous use of space, which few cost-conscious publishers would permit today, makes him a more powerful presence than any close-up.

This is typical of the book's less-is-more genius. Up from Mexico, where he currently lives and shoots, de Gast explained over a long lunch recently how he decided from the start of Oystermen to exclude the "merely pretty," the big, double-wide "wow" photos that always impress but can leave one strangely unfulfilled at the end of such a book.

Just as Ashton lavishes space in his design, de Gast lavished time on his subjects, going out in all weather, dawn to dark, getting to know them - not just to become friends but to "become invisible," he says. "Nothing was posed or done especially for a picture."

And how this shows: the head and neck of a captain jutting from his wheelhouse, as if boat and man were one creature; powerful portraits of joy at heading in with a full catch, disgust at being becalmed; a deckhand gazing to sea:

"I ain't gonna let my son

go drudgin, but I can't do

nothin' else myself."

The book is rich in detail shots of the oysterman's craft: the assortment of gloves and old cans used to keep rain out of upright exhaust pipes on engines; running lights duct-taped to rigging; the way anchor ropes are rigged:

"Some 'o them Dorchester

County watermen anchor off the bow,

but here in Talbot, we mostly

anchor off the stern.

Catch more arsters that way."

I have probably shown Oystermen to 100 people over the years, and every time I get excited. It's neither sentimental nor romantic, but simply one of the finest evocations ever of how the Chesapeake's community of bivalves begat an unforgettable human culture.

I hope someone will reprint Oystermen. It won't bring back the oysters or the era. But it's art that deserves to live, and it shows how healthy natural systems expand human possibilities.

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