The Making of a Photo: “First Toss”

The Making of a Photo:

It was a curious chain of events that found me on a drift commercial fishing boat in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, at the height of the sockeye salmon fishery in 2011.  As I prepared to launch into my Bristol Bay photography project, I was searching for that first connection to introduce me to people in the region.  I was looking to get my foot in the door of Bristol Bay, so to speak. Fortunately, my wife Michelle worked with someone who was the grand daughter of a matriarch of a commercial fishing family – four generations of commercial fishermen going back to before Statehood. In short time, I was on a flight to King Salmon, where a ride awaited to take me to Naknek to meet up with the matriarch herself, Violet Willson. That evening I was out photographing one of her other grand daughters, Rhonda, working her set net with her husband and son.

The next afternoon, I was on the tender Westward on a 13-hour ride down to the Ugashik Bay. As the sun rose just under a band of clouds on the horizon, I caught my first glimpse of the commercial fishing fleet, scattered about on the horizon.  They were in the midst of a sockeye salmon opener, often a limited period of time around six hours where they can catch as much as they can before the opener is done and they move into the river to deliver their catch to a waiting tender.  The Westward was on its way down to relieve another Ocean Beauty tender, which would take its haul of fish back to Naknek and deliver to the cannery.

My purpose in riding the Westward down to Ugashik was to hook up with another one of Violet’s grandchildren, Everett Thompson.  He was the skipper of the F/V Chulyen.  After several boats had delivered their catch to the Westward, I finally caught my first glimpse of the Chulyen as she approached to make her delivery; the tell-tale “No Pebble” flag was flying from her mast, and Everett was at the helm on the pilot house waving to me as he approached. When the Chulyen pulled alongside to deliver her catch, I tossed my personal bag over and jumped over with my camera bag on my back. The next opener was not until 6:00 a.m. the next day, so after the Chulyen delivered her catch, we anchored out in a small bay sheltered from the wind and caught some rest before the next day’s work was upon us.

As the opener approached, the two crewmen got the nets and the buoy ready to go.  Everett maneuvered the Chulyen around to a location where he was confident would bring in a good catch.  He suggested I join him on the pilot house for a higher perspective of the crew and the net drum. So, I pulled out my Nikon D700 and selected my Nikon 12-24 f/4.0 AFS-DX lens.  Given the brightness of the sky compared to the color of the water, I selected a Lee graduated neutral density filter (.09) to balance the exposure.  Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the crewmember to toss out the buoy at the beginning of the opener.  Everett was both driving the boat around to get it in the right position (constantly changing the scene as the sun was coming up about then) and keeping an eye on the clock to make sure his crew did not start setting the net before they legally could.

So, I waited.  All the while, the boat was constantly changing orientation, the swell of the ocean constantly forcing me to readjust my camera to match the ever-changing horizon. And, I had to make sure that the dark line of my GND hard filter matched that of the shifting horizon.  Then, the moment came.  Everett gave the signal to toss the buoy and start casting out the net. The crewman tossed the buoy, and my finger pressed down on the shutter button, while simultaneously making sure that my camera was as level as it could be with the shifting sea and all.

This was the first trip on my fieldwork for the book, my first time out on a drift commercial fishing boat, and my first drift commercial fishing opener.  So in more ways than one, this picture truly is “First Toss.”

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