May 1: Immersion

Date #1May 1: Mayday! There are all tempers of seas, and sea photographers of all temperaments…

Let me start with that temptress of the brine, the siren, the mermaid and her male counterpart the merrow, and the selkie, Venus born of sea-foam, and others from the Greek myths of Kalypso and Nausicaä.

An image springs to mind; star-crossed Nell Dorr, herself a legend of female triumph of ambition over adversity, provides it, and several others.

Nell Dorr (ca. 1929) Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.443

Her sea sweeps from the Florida Keys into the Everglades where she shot pictures of her children for her 1933 self-published book Mangroves, the same shots reedited into a higher-quality production became In a Blue Moon. From those balmy waters emerges her teenage daughter in the guise of the archetypal siren.

Ata Kandó (1954/5) from Kalypso & Nausikaä

Ata Kando, whose life story and determination as a photographer was as remarkable, has her teenage daughter play the parts of both Kalypso who trapped Odysseus, and Nausicaä who rescued him.

Lorena Carrington (2019) Selkie

My partner Lorena Carrington‘s illustration, also using as a model our daughter, for an upcoming book in collaboration with an Irish author, depicts the selkie, a Celtic mythical creature that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land, ravelling her hair into a tempestuous sea in a provocation of our awe of its depths [she last illustrated Snow White, Rose Red and Other Tales of Kind Young Women by Kate Forsyth, released just today.]

Anita Conti (1899-1997) was an Armenian-born French explorer and photographer, and the first French female oceanographer. She spent a wealthy childhood  travelling with her family and became passionate about the sea and her writing for which she won recognition in Europe. Her marriage in 1927 to diplomat, Marcel Conti enabled further travel, which she documented in writing and photographs, concentrating increasingly on the problem of fishing.

Sur les bancs de Terre Neuve, 1952
Anita Conti (1944) Seabirds follow the trawlers on the Newfoundland Grand Banks

Her photographs, like that above made from a fishing boat on the Grand Banks conveys the danger and drama of fishing on the high seas. While taking them she recorded the effects of water temperature and salinity on fish stocks. Her compellingly written  journalistic reports in women’s magazines attracted the attention of Édouard Le Danois at the Scientific and Technical Office for Marine Fisheries (OSTPM), who hired her as officer “responsible for propaganda.”

As a professional oceanographer; she embarked, a woman alone, for several months on fishing vessels, among crews reluctant to accept a woman on board; several shots, taken by the crew for her, show her amongst sailors dumbfounded by her activity in the hold of their boat, but clearly they warm to her presence.

Anita Conti’s equipment is that of the 1950s; a medium-format Rolleiflex, hand held meter and low-sensitivity 6 × 6 film, augmented with a clockwork-drive 16mm Paillard-Bolex movie camera, made shooting in heavy weather and low light difficult.

Nettoyage cheminée Vikings, 1939
Anita Conti (1939) Cleaning the funnel of the Viking

Her precarious compositions, like that above in which slanting cables connected to the boat’s infrastructure are aligned with the edges of the frame, emphasise the treacherously shifting gravity of life at sea.

Sillage du Bois Rosé. Terre Neuve,1952
Anita Conti (1952) The wake of the Bois Rosé, Newfoundland.

She spent  days and even months on fishing craft, in the Bay of Biscay and also the Saharan African coasts, the Mauritian islands, Senegal, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, where she encountered fish species then unknown in France.

Casamance, Sénégal, 1944
Anita Conti (1944) Casamance, Sénégal.
Etienne le catholique, Guinee, vers 1945
Anita Conti (c.1945) Etienne, Guinea.
Famille de Sarzeautins, Méditérranée, 1958-1959
Anita Conti (1958-9) A family of Sarzeautins, Mediterranean

Her pictures of the 1950s were made when cod fishing vessels covered long distances over long periods, and since then fishing has undergone the technical revolution of the trawler, replacing the conventional net.

No 1
Anita Conti’s high-angle view of work aboard the fishing boat shows the systematic processing of fish, with the catch on one side and piles of waste and rejected fish on the other.

From the coasts of Brittany and Normandy, large, fairly stable ships would head out to sea crewed by sixty to eighty men who carried out the entire processing and salting of fish on board requiring ten kinds of workers each performing a specific task on the fish, according to a precise hierarchy, at the end of which the cod must be ready for the return to port. These specialist trades were made redundant  in the era of the trawler and no-one has a fixed and strictly defined function.

Her pictures, far from being solely documentary, adopt the humanist, often intimate, perspective of photography then prevailing in France. We can read the deference to his teacher of the exhausted and bedraggled young apprentice as the captain untangles a hawser for him.

No 3
Anita Conti, Captain and apprentice

Developing deeper understanding of the negative effects of industrial fishing, she published scientific reports on the condition of the seabed,  nutritional values of various fish species, fishing methods that promoted conservation of fish stocks and experimented with artificial fish nurseries.

Le cul du chalut dégueule la morue, Bois Rose?, 1952
Anita Conti (1952) The net of the Bois Rose trawler disgorges its catch of cod.

In the 1950s her voyages to the Grand Banks fisheries of Newfoundland she became ever more conscious of the wastage of this natural resource, in 1971 she published L’Ocean, Les Betes et L’Homme, predicting a disaster in the oceans that we see unfolding now, and for the rest of her life advocated for the marine world, adding a voice for the oceans to that of Rachel Carson whose Silent Spring spoke for the land.

In 1984 Magnum photographer Jean Gaumy started a cycle of winter voyages aboard so-called “classic” open-deck trawlers which he continued until 1998, publishing Pleine Mer (“Men at Sea”) in 2001 commended in a July 2002 Guardian review by Peter Nichols “Men at Sea is both a rare and a beautiful book, and an archival testament of a world fast slipping away. Or already gone.”

His pictures make us viscerally aware of the fragility of the vessel as it cleaves the sky and sea which appears looming, ready to snatch back the fish which have just be wrenched from it, while in the human environment that occupies half the frame men steady themselves as they process the catch into merchandise.

No 4
Jean Gaumy, from Plein Mer, 2001

When Jean Gaumy’s series commence, division of labor has been reduced, though the tasks are almost the same: catching fish and processing them on board so that they can be transported to the port at the end of the voyage. But for the sake of profitability the trips are less distant and faster so that the shipowners invest less in fuel, in the size of the ships. To cut wage bills the crew is made smaller (ten to twenty men) and international, and the brevity of the trips does not favour the formation of a collective. The fewer trades are no longer the specialities that they used to be. Risks mount: falls, injuries to the hands, lower and upper limbs, fatal accidents are part of the working conditions, as Gaumy notes;

“You always have to be very careful with the sea. A huge wave had thrown a man out of the boat. Unprecedented luck and despite the speed of the boat, the movement of the waves had enabled the other sailors to catch him just barely during the two or three tiny seconds of reflux […]. Everyone feels the same fear of being caught by the sea or, by the action of cables, dragged to the gallows, crushed by the winches or the weight of the panels.”

Jean Gaumy

The work is dangerous and exhausting for his subjects, and photographing is as treacherous for him, though he has the advantage of faster films and electronic flash to compensate for the necessary slow shutter speeds in low light; evident in the frozen foreground detail of the night shots above against the blurred, windswept white-capped waves;

“Always as difficult to move and frame. The deck is so crowded, slippery, saturated with water mixed with blood […] changing a film is already a problem. Under the spray, you have to dry your hands, open the bag, extract the case, open it and protect the exposed films from water, the one you remove and the one you load, dry your fingers, defog a hundred times and above all remain upright.”


Andalousia. Village of Zahara de los Atunes, near Cape Trafalgar. Tuna fishing with the “madrague”, a vast net with various chambers, used to catch tunas on their way from the Atlantic Ocean into the warmer Mediterranean. Once the shoal of fish has been sighted, fishermen pull up the nets around the so-called “chamber of death”.

The documentary value of the work of this photography is evidenced by François Cardi writing in the sociology journal La nouvelle revue du travail in an article entitled ‘Towards a sociology of deepwater fishing : Anita Conti and Jean Gaumy’ which uses an extended analysis and comparison of the earlier mid-century fishing-boat imagery of Anita Conti with that of Jean Gaumy.

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