Vintage photographs are valuable artefacts insofar as they preserve the memory of people and things that otherwise would slip into oblivion. Some old pictures, however, do much more: they are veritable works of art. The following are six such photographs. They are timeless reminders of the beauty and power of the sea, as worthy of being kept for posterity as the seascapes of famous painters.

The French Fleet, Cherbourg, 1858
Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820– 1884)
Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

The French Fleet, Cherbourg epitomises Gustave Le Gray‘s concept of photography as a means of artistic expression, not just a tool for recording reality. The J. Paul Getty Museum says it was taken during the visit of Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie to inaugurate the harbour of Cherbourg (Normandy France) and a new railway linking the town to Paris. Seven warships sit silently in the harbour, their masts mirrored by a sea that looks like a sheet of glass. The atmosphere is one of complete serenity, but there is a sense of foreboding. It is as if Le Gray wanted to convey the idea that peace is a fragile thing and, for this reason, so precious.

Where sky and ocean meet, between 1900 and 1910
Detroit Publishing Company, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

The unidentified creator of Where sky and ocean meet demonstrates the appeal of black and white photography. The ominous dark clouds look like they are about to burst and unleash their fury. The chiaroscuro of sky and sea makes for a really stunning photograph.

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Moonlit Sea. Wick, Near Arundel [England], about 1860
John Harmer (British, active 1870s)
Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum

The photographers of old had to contend with severe technical limitations. John Harmer used collodion on glass, a messy photographic process which produced imperfect pictures, to create these twin seascapes. At first glance, one would think that they were done in pastel or oil.

The Freezing of the Sea, 1913–1914
Herbert G. Ponting (British, 1870–1935)
Photo courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum

Herbert George Ponting created unforgettable images of Antarctica as official photographer for Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition. His The Freezing of the Sea presents an aspect of the polar sea that most people will never get to witness in real life. The photograph is eerie, but it fascinates with a surreal kind of beauty.

Moonlight on Bering Sea, between ca. 1900 and 1927
Unidentified Lomen Bros. photographer
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

The word “poetic” aptly describes Moonlight on Bering Sea given its emotional and imaginative power. The photograph calls to mind the words of Aristotle: Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular (Aristotle’s Poetics).

NAVY, U.S. BATTLESHIPS IN STORM AT SEA, 1913
Unidentified Harris & Ewing photographer
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

In this dramatic shot, an American warship appears to pit its might against a raging sea. One can imagine the vessel sailing into the black pit of war — what English poet and satirist Samuel Butler (1612–1680) called “the artificial plague of man” in his poem, Satire Upon the Weakness and Misery of Man. Nature can be destructive indeed, but are not humans much more so?

~ Barista Uno

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