Some maritime photos from the turn of the 20th century and earlier decades can be so dull that they make you feel that you’re really looking at people and things long departed. They leave you cold.
Thankfully, you may stumble on old pictures that are not mere records of maritime events or scenes. They zoom into view from the remote past like apparitions that seem alive. What they often lack in sharpness is compensated for by the power of their narrative or symbolic content.
The following are 10 such photos. All were created long before the advent of digital cameras and Photoshop — when photography entailed hard work and any editing was painstakingly done by the photographer inside the darkroom.
Each one of these images illustrates what the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, said: “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
The Great Wave, Sète (1857)
Photo: Gustave Le Gray/ Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
This work by France’s foremost 19th century photographer calls to mind the loftiness of a Greek tragedy. The interplay of light and dark brings forth the power of the sea and a sense of foreboding as well as hope.
Fishing boats loading the barge on the reef. Mobile Bay, Alabama (1911)
Photo: Lewis Hine/ National Child Labor Committee Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress
Hine, an American sociologist and photographer, created a wonderful Zen-like atmosphere in this photo. Everything is calm and meditative. But on closer look, one notices the bustle of activity, the back-breaking work, on board the vessels.
Tubular Jetty, Mouth of the Adour, Port of Bayonne (1892)
Photo: Louis Lafon/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)
Although very little is known about the French photographer Louis Lafon, this picture is ample proof of his talent. It is a tour de force in minimalism, a term that did not come into vogue until the 1950s.
SANTA ANNA ship sailing (between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915)
Photo: Bain News Service/ Bain Collection, U.S. Library of Congress
This news photo transports us back to a time when ship departures were momentous events. There is something poignant in the way the crowd is still waving to the passengers even when the ship is about to vanish from sight.
Aviation, Curtis [sic] at Atlantic City (ca. 1911)
Photo: Glenn Hammond Curtiss/ U.S. Library of Congress
This picture has a rare element of surprise. It is also highly symbolic. A biplane flies low as four men watch on the shore. It appears to dwarf the boat in the distance as if to announce that a new age in transportation had arrived.
On the beach, Palm Beach, Fla. (between 1900 and 1906)
Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./ U.S. Library of Congress
Excellent composition and balance make this a memorable shot. The figures on the beach all look relaxed on a sunny day. Yet, each strikes a different pose, adding a certain dynamism to the photo.
Photo: Albin Langdon Coburn/ U.S. Library of Congress
The spiderweb of masts and riggings and their reflection on the water creates a ghostly atmosphere. The eerie pattern speaks of the complexity and energy of the shipping world. But it could also symbolise the web of maritime chicanery and corruption that often entraps mariners and fishermen.
American Barque “Jane Tudor,” Conway Bay (ca. 1855)
Photo: David Johnson/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)
In this captivating photo, the ship appears tilted precariously. Almost instinctively, the viewer tries to find something in the picture that would prevent its falling into the water. But there’s only an anchor hanging like a small pendant from the bow. Brilliant!
Hoisting a horse probably from the deck of the ship, by African American laborers, Alaska, ca. 1900.
Photo: Wilhelm Hester/ University of Washington
This simple photo of a man carefully helping offload a horse from a ship speaks eloquently of the timeless connection between man and beast: both are fellow workers and fellow travellers in life.
Sunshine & Shower (1889-1891)
Photo: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe/ Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
British photographer Sutcliffe’s masterful handling of light and shadow elevates this photo to a work of art. Here is a perfect example of how a picture can delight the eye and the mind without mesmerising us with colours.
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