By the time the Suez Canal opened in 1869--speeding and enhancing the shipping trade between Western Europe and Asia--photography had joined the cultural conversation of a world that was gradually growing smaller. Inevitably, photographic images of the industry's marvelously varied vessels began to proliferate, as boats and boating became a timeless motif for realistic depictions of global commercialism, exotic passage and, most of all, the picturesque.
From the mastless battleships of the Royal Navy to the fishing craft of Nova Scotia, the gondolas of Venice and the junks of Cathay, the business of boats has provided endless fodder for photographers, and the images in this exhibit are among the best. They offer much of what photography does so well, capturing the moody massing of ocean clouds, a sense of wave-borne motion and the scale of the great ships, against which human figures are often arrayed in their dwarfed pride.
The tranquility and grace of these nautical images is also an aspect of their charm. The reflection of ships on rippling harbor waters, and the oceanic waves through which the grand ocean liners plow are potent pictorial aspects seen in the shipping photos of noted 20th-century photographers, such as Jean-Marie Auradon and W.H. Bettle. There is also the strong modernist play of geometric forms: the smoke-belching steamboats, the triangular sails and bisecting spars, the oars and ovoids of small craft. Images of boats at anchor in the quaint harbors of Europe evoke time and place, while the eternal contrast between sky, sea and land presents a range of photographic challenge which the best photographers face with creative approaches to composition and exposure.
Often, this results in evocative chiaroscuro effects, with large ships shadowed against a far horizon, or modernistic images that capture the complex, cubistic play of reflections on the water. If anything, these images of ships moored or on the move provide fascinating nautical detail on one hand and, on the other, explorations of pictorial space that suggest the painterly influence of Cezanne and other modernists who often sought, in the classic sight of boats on the water, a blend of the formal and the metaphoric in depicting the natural and man-made worlds.
Indeed, in their transition from Pictorialists to documentary photographers, such artists as Doris Ulman, Edith Gerin, and Paul Douglas Anderson made good use of nautical themes to transcend merely decorative picture-making and thus deepen their imagery via the muscular textures and visual intricacies of shipping-industry motifs. Late 20th-century photographers also drew inspiration from the industry, especially in their use of saturated color techniques, as in the work of Edward Burtynsky and Vladimir Birgus, two photographers whose large-scale contemporary emphasis speaks to our global commercial moment, and for whom--like all of the photographers represented in this exhibit--going down to the sea in ships is a journey to the heart of things.