Whether it’s the simple reflection of a boat hull on the water, the worn face of a lifelong waterman on a Chesapeake island, or a family of nesting brown pelicans captured down to the detail of their eye color, Jay Fleming’s photos illustrate life on the Chesapeake Bay like no other photographer past or present.
Like the watermen that often surround him and are depicted in his book Working the Water, Jay works the water by spending countless hours on it himself. He rises with the sun and often spends full days in its rays until it sets.
He is nostalgic. The fact that he keeps a dozen of old cameras used to shoot images across his lifetime in his office reflects a sentimentality that shows in his work as he tells the stories of those whose lives are illustrated forever in one of his candid portraits. Captaining his custom-built Privateer, or if conditions call for it, the trusty kayak that served as his first means of transportation around the disappearing islands of the Bay to capture moments that can’t be seen from the shoreline, Jay’s images document what might be lost were it not for his ability to tell these poignant stories of the Chesapeake. His new book, Island Life, will be out in 2021.
We sat down with Jay to ask some questions about his photography and what we can learn from his work:
Chesapeake Family Life: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
Jay Fleming: I was 13 when I received a film camera from my dad. I learned how to process film on my own. When I finally got a driver’s license and could go out in the early morning to capture wildlife, I took my kayak to places that weren’t accessible by car. I loved to photograph birds: herons, egrets and other shorebirds. But I never thought I’d be able to make a living from it.
CFL: What’s the first photo you were proud of?
JF: There’s a photo of a great egret flying that I took when I was 13. It’s still hanging in my office. I shot it on a Nikon N90S on 35mm color negative film. Back then we took fewer photographs than we can take digitally now.
CFL: What is your process for choosing photos for a book?
JF: It’s really about figuring out the story you want to tell. I am starting with about 330,000 images and I have to narrow them down to about 300 for the book. The story evolves over time. I’m looking at the seafood industries: the people, the boats, the product, the gear. And there are the details, like which pound netting or crab potting photos best tell the story.
CFL: What interests you most about watermen? What have you learned from them?
JF: They have stories to tell. Their families have been working the water for 8 to 10 generations. They’ve seen an incredible amount of change. Their oral histories are one of the best resources we have to document the changes on the Chesapeake Bay. I admire their hard work, dedication to their industry and perseverance.
CFL: What lighting do you like best on the water and what type of boat?
JF: I love a skipjack under sail at sunrise.
CFL: What tips do you have for capturing wildlife?
JF: Try to get out early in the morning before sunrise when the light is soft, or at sunset. Marshy areas are great, and it’s even better if you can get out in a kayak and paddle around small creeks to find herons and other birds on the shoreline.
CFL: Do you have some advice for parents and young kids beginning photography?
JF: Pick up another device: the camera. Get outside, start kids young. Take a photography workshop—I offer workshops in June to Smith Island, in August in Annapolis and I offer private trips on the water.
CFL: What can people gain or learn from your photography workshops?
JF: In my workshops we visit remote locations in the Chesapeake where few others travel. It’s a one-on-one, hands-on experience where we go over concepts and composition and with optimal lighting I put people in the best positions to shoot. We also do review and critique of photos.
CFL: What was your focus/goal for your second book, Island Life, and how did it differ from your first book, Working the Water?
JF: This book has a narrow geography focusing on the offshore islands of the Chesapeake Bay of Tangier and Smith Islands. I’m documenting their way of life and how isolation has made them unique: what they eat, their religion, recreation, how they talk, their economy, their boats.
CFL: How has coastal erosion changed the way you photograph the Chesapeake?
JF: The islands are constantly changing, becoming smaller—most notably Holland Island, which is most exposed in all directions. These places are changing all the time, and documenting that change is important. That’s what keeps me motivated to go back out and shoot.