This month, the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport finished preserving, scanning and cataloging National Fisherman magazine’s massive photographic archive. The images were stuffed into filing cabinets at the publication’s Portland office for decades. Now, every image is online, in a searchable database, for the whole world to see for free.
The broad ranging archive reveals the compelling, gritty world of commercial fishing. The collection of prints and negatives originally accompanied stories and advertisements. They show emerging technology, as well as everyday fisherfolk hauling nets, processing the catch, repairing trawlers, building boats and setting Coast Guard buoys.
The Penobscot Marine Museum’s mission is to preserve, interpret, and celebrate the maritime culture of the Penobscot Bay region. The museum dedicates significant resources to preserving historic photographs. It currently holds more than 140,000 negatives, prints, slides, postcards and daguerreotypes. All are available for research, reproduction and licensing.
National Fishermen is still published by Diversified Communications. It’s headquartered on Commercial Street in Portland. It covers the fishing industry all over the country. It began publishing in Camden in 1946 as Maine Coast Fisherman. Over the ensuing decades, it bought and consolidated several regional fisheries magazines. It became National Fisherman in 1960.
The BDN recently spoke with the museum’s Digital Curator, Matt Wheeler.
Q: As I understand it, recently retired Penobscot Marine Museum Curator Ben Fuller negotiated the donation of these materials. Is that right?
A: He knew that these analog photos — prints and negatives — were sitting in file cabinets there and mostly not being used or seen. Ben knew it would be a great fit for our collection so he started courting the editors, stopping in to talk to them, looking over what they had there. Eventually, they agreed we’d be an ideal final destination for the photographs.
Kevin Johnson [museum photo archivist] and I drove down to Portland in 2012 and loaded up these four file cabinets.
Q: Wait, you took the file cabinets and all? Not just the contents, but the actual cabinets?
A: Exactly. [laughing]
Q: What time period do these photos cover?
A: From the origins of the magazine in the early 60s, all the way up to when they went digital with their photos in the mid 90s. There’s some earlier stuff in there, too, some pictures from Atlantic Fisherman [an earlier publication consolidated by National Fisherman]. The total object count is close to 25,000.
Q: Holy mackerel. You digitized and cataloged all of that?
A: We did, yeah. It’s been a long road. There’s so much there that’s great, powerful and evocative — ranging from crews at work on deck of fishing trawlers, to people tonging for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay and…
Q: These aren’t just local, Maine photos? These are fishermen from all over the country?
A: That’s right. National Fisherman is this conglomeration of all kinds of regional fisheries magazines. That’s one of the reasons we feel the collection is valuable and has the potential to benefit a broad community.
Q: Why is it important to preserve and research these old images?
A: That’s a great question and it dovetails into the larger question of how do you get people to notice these photos in this age where there are hundreds of millions of images being made and shared every day — that’s a tough question. These images are important because they’re a timeline, revealing a lot — strictly on a visual level — about how this very important industry has changed over the decades. After WWII, a lot of technology emerged that changed fisheries forever. There’s a lot of cultural and historic significance to these images.
Q: These photos fascinate me. I’m old enough to recognize the look of some of the people in them. They remind me of my great uncle, who was a lobsterman, and his fishing buddies. They were all characters. They all had salty nicknames.
A: I’m with you, Troy. For me, the most powerful photographs are the photographs of people. That’s one of the things I like best about this collection. There’s so many photos of fishermen, captains, crews — people in fish processing. I think you can discern something about the character of these people by looking at their photograph. It’s great to see people who are, you know, a little “seasoned” and rough around the edges — guys with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths while hauling a trap or weighing fish — guys working, shirtless. It says so much, culturally.
Q: Such tough old salts.
A: Even the more recent photos are great. How many people know what the deck of a stern trawler looks like? What the fishermen’s faces look like? Not many.
Q: I guess a lot more will know now that your collection is online. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
A: Thanks for your interest. I think there’s a good future for this stuff.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.