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Fishermen’s photography ‘hugely impressive’

Kevin Ritch's Fish Eyes is one of many striking pieces in the At Sea and Shore exhibition. All photos: Davie Gardner

OVER the centuries, despite many ups, downs and challenges, Shetland’s fishing industry has maintained its near rightful place – even through the heady days of the islands’ oil rush – as by far the most important and sustainable component of our local economy, writes Davie Gardner.

A new and directionally unique photographic exhibition at Shetland Museum & Archive’s Da Gadderie in Lerwick focuses and sheds light on – both literally and metaphorically – that physically hard, dangerous and at times unforgiving local industry through the artistic eye and camera lenses of several talented individuals either currently working, or who previously worked, onboard local fishing vessels.

The result is a stunning set of photographs which combine the industrial and at times harsh environmental nature of the business with some of its more striking and picturesque aspects.

The exhibition – entitled At Sea and Ashore and launched on Saturday afternoon – is the brainchild of Scalloway resident and BBC Radio Shetland broadcast reporter Jane Moncrieff, who initially had the idea for the project while working on a radio documentary for the station entitled Safety at Sea.

Having already seen interesting and often impressive photographs from several local fishermen appearing on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, the idea that ultimately became At Sea and Ashore began to form in her mind.

Many of the photographs posted in this way not only depicted the fishermen’s lives and work at sea, but equally highlighted their keen and artistic eye for a good photograph while ashore – hence the title of the exhibition.

The camera-toting fishermen who ultimately became involved in the project were Johnny Simpson from Whalsay, a crewman on various Zephyrs since 1974, Kevin Ritch from Unst/Burra who sails as second skipper on the Alison Kay, and Whalsay’s Ian Reid of the Resilient – all keen photographers already.

An additional and slightly different element of the exhibition – and one which attracted a huge amount of attention at the opening event – comes through the camera of the late Leslie Williamson from Bixter. It’s a series of photos going back more than half a century to when he was a shareholder/crewman on the fishing boat Evening Star.

Leslie’s top quality colour photographs from the mid 1960s depicting life and work onboard the vessel – here captured in relatively calm weather – effectively illustrate the sheer physical demands and hardships of the job at a time when everything, including the hauling of the nets, had to be done by hand, while there are other photos of the crew enjoying a rare break from fishing activity.

Leslie’s widow Marlene, who supplied the images for the exhibition, humorously observed: “This was back in the days when boats were made of wood and men were made of steel.”

David Smith, an ex-skipper of the Evening Star who attended the opening of the exhibition, told me he never actually knew the photos were being taken and, as such, he saw many of them for the very first time. “It wis hard graft back then,” he recalled. “There’s a huge change fae then till noo.”

Back up to date again and many of Johnny, Kevin and Ian’s photos, which collectively feature the fishing industry, sea and landscapes and the environment around them together with stunning captures of bird and wildlife, are nothing short of extraordinary, especially given they are all amateur photographers.

Each individual exhibits a keen eye for content, framing, composition/detail and an excellent understanding of the use of light to either effectively colour the photo or otherwise create impressive dark silhouettes of objects in the frame; in short, everything that goes to make up an eye-catching and, more often than not, stunning photograph.

There’s highlights abound, whether it be Kevin’s wonderful seascapes, often encompassing birdlife, plus his general sense of photographic quirkiness and at times humour (as in Fish Eyes for instance), which are notable features here, while Ian’s creative use of colour and light (see Hauling the Trawl and Isbister Beach) creates significant photographic impact. His photos of the hulk of the ex-fishing boat Fruitful Bow, two gannets fighting over a fish in the water and another gannet in flight, are all little short of wonderful.

Johnny’s talent with a camera is equally impressive – especially when it comes to capturing wildlife in action (see his dramatic puffin and orca photos for example), here accompanied by a range of dynamic landscape shots too. “You’re occasionally lucky and get a good een noo and again,” he said modestly.

Perhaps the only disappointment is that none of Johnny’s amazing images of the aurora borealis do not find a place here, but that’s scant criticism given the quality what has made ‘the cut’.

For organiser Jane Moncrieff, seeing the fishermen “living within”, “noticing” and “having such respect for their environment” has been the highlight of the project. The large crowd gathered for the official opening of the exhibition are obviously in full agreement with those sentiments and clearly enjoyed everything on display – a result that Jane is “delighted” with.

All-in-all it’s a hugely impressive and informative exhibition of local photographic and artistic talent – one emanating from a source which many folk may not have otherwise known existed, unless you happen to be a regular user of social media that is. So, in instances such as this at least, we do have something to thank the likes of Facebook for, otherwise this particular exhibition may not have happened at all.

Mark my words – At Sea and Ashore is set to become a very popular exhibition indeed.

At Sea and Ashore will be held at Da Gadderie until Monday 26 February.