Along the wide waters of eastern North Carolina, the people of many scattered villages separated by creeks, marshes, and rivers depend on shallow-water boats, both for their livelihoods as fishermen and to maintain connections with one another and with the rest of the world. As Lawrence S. Earley discovered, each workboat has stories to tell, of boatbuilders and fishermen, and of family members and past events associated with these boats. The rich history of these hand-built wooden fishing boats, the people who work them, and the communities they serve lies at the heart of Earley’s evocative new book of essays, interviews, and photographs, The Workboats of Core Sound: Stories and Photographs of a Changing World.
In the following interview, Earley shares his story of photographing this disappearing culture and the stories of the boats and boatbuilders of Core Sound.
Q: You traveled more than 200 miles from your home in Raleigh to Down East North Carolina communities to take photographs and talk to the locals. What drew you to that area and inspired you to photograph workboats in their natural landscapes for several years?
A: What originally drew me to the area was its beautiful coastal landscape. The vast salt marshes are among the most extensive on the East Coast. My wife and I enjoyed poking around in the small communities and looking at the boats that were everywhere. My first photographs in the area were landscapes, and eventually the fishing boats in these landscapes drew my interest as well. But during an exhibition of some of these photographs in 2005 at Harkers Island, I met fishermen and boatbuilders who told me a few fascinating stories not only about the boats, but also about the people who built them and fished them and about the communities in which they were used. It was then that I began to think about doing a longer and more sustained project documenting the old wooden boats and interviewing boatbuilders, fishermen, and their families about them.
Q: What made you want to delve deeper into the stories behind the pictures you took?
A: When I began to travel to the various communities and show my photographs to residents, I began to understand that the boats held deep stores of information that I was not at all aware of. When Core Sound fishermen and others looked at a photograph of a workboat, they saw layers of history, biography, technology, and environmental information. I realized that my conversations about the boats might become opportunities to build a picture of the role that workboats played not only in helping families make a living, but also in connecting individuals, families, and communities. I learned that each workboat was, in a sense, a memory bank of relationships and experiences.
Q: You’re probably better known as a writer. How long have you been photographing and what does photography mean to you?
A: I’ve been involved with photography for about forty years, although I’ve made my living chiefly as a writer. There were lapses when I didn’t have access to a darkroom, and then sudden eruptions of energy for a few months when I traveled and had some new images to work with. I used film for most of those years, as all photographers did, learning the craft of exposing and developing negatives and making prints in the darkroom. Very few of the negatives I exposed made their way into prints, and most of those ended up in a box in the darkroom. This may show a remarkable lack of seriousness on my part, although it could also be said that making a print wasn’t always the objective. It was the experience of making the photograph that was important. It was the walk, the time in the outdoors, the landscapes that I was experiencing and reacting to. The print was often just a byproduct of the walk, and if I didn’t make a print, it wasn’t as if the time spent walking was wasted.
Q: You mentioned that while you appreciate the fine art of digital photography, you typically use film. Why did you choose black and white film to photograph? What kind of cameras did you use?
A: When I began my project, film was still the medium of choice for most photographers. I had all the film cameras I needed, I knew how to use them and I knew my way around the darkroom. Digital photography showed promise, but I couldn’t afford to discard my film cameras and buy new digital equipment. (A few years into the project, I did purchase a used digital camera with which I made a few pictures for the book.) The film formats I used for this project included everything from 35mm, for ease of use while photographing the fishing, to medium-format and large-format (4 x 5), for the landscape and boat photography. I learned how to develop black-and-white film back in the late 1960s and have photographed in black and white ever since. I see my subjects in black and white now, mostly in terms of their compositional possibilities and form. But certainly for a project like this one that involved such strong contrasts between white boats and darker water and sky, black and white was really the only way to go.
Q: What photographer or photographers have influenced your work in this book? Continue reading ‘Interview: Lawrence S. Earley on The Workboats of Core Sound’ »