Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shipping News

Seven Seas Navigator, 2004

Where I live there are many waterfronts. There are the popular beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. For calmer waters, you move a few miles around to the north shore of Virginia Beach, which forms the southern border of the Chesapeake Bay. Just to the west of us are the ports of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Newport News. Together they form the world’s largest year-round ice-free deep water port, and as such are home to not only the largest Naval base in the world, but also one of the busiest cargo ports.

When I worked in downtown Norfolk it was nothing to look over on the drive to the office and see a giant aircraft carrier, a submarine, an oil tanker, a tall sailing ship or a gleaming ocean liner headed to or from one of the shipyards and dry docks that line the shores of the Elizabeth River. Walking the waterfront at lunchtime was one of the great pleasures of working downtown. A fleet of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ships was docked at the end of our block. Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso and a few of his experimental craft were kept another block or two away from my office.

The downtown harbor is also milepost zero on the Intracoastal Waterway, which means we see a steady stream of private yachts moving up and down the coast most any time of the year.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the Battleship Wisconsin is now permanently docked at a downtown pier.

For all this maritime activity, I’ve not given it a lot of attention with my camera. My father used to know every square inch of the downtown waterfront. His job required that he stay in constant touch with representatives of all the shipping lines, shipping agents, customs house officials and companies that shipped goods in and out of our local ports.

Big Sky, 2008

The first world maps I had as a boy were big wall-size affairs like you used to see in school classrooms. Every year Dad would bring me a new map compliments of the United States Line. The borders of the maps were always illustrated with pictures of the U.S. Line’s cargo ships and ocean liners.

My work doesn’t involve the port. However, I’ve always been fascinated by ships and how the port works. Loading and unloading ships used to be done largely by people called stevedores. Now most of the action involves immense computer-guided cranes moving shipping containers.

It’s a busy port. As I write these words, tells me there are more than fifty commercial ships in our port right now and almost as many tug boats.

I’ve started paying more attention lately to the movement of ships lately. Earlier this week I decided I need to know more about the port, and particularly the smaller port-related businesses that fill in all the gaps along the waterfront between the Navy base and the big shipyards. It turns out there are all kinds of little maritime industries. They build ships. They repair and renew ships. They take ships apart. They form concrete for bridges and steel for buildings.

Albino and Big Blue, 2011

Although most of these places have nothing to hide, they’re all highly secure sites and are not anxious for nosy photographers to be peeking into their operations. But since ships are big and hard to hide, successful ship photography is mostly a function of finding good spots from which to photograph them.

My tour of the waterfront the other day was mostly a scouting trip to find new vantage points for photography. (I found a whole shipyard I hadn’t even known about hidden behind a cemetery.) It was a rainy and, as these pictures show, not a great day for sharp photographs. I hope to get back and do more when the sun comes back out.

Like an Art Deco Ocean Liner, 2011


  1. Virgina Beach's vibrant port sounds vastly different than Buffalo's port. A sad, sad place.

  2. These are beautiful photos of ships--the way you cropped a few of these shots reminds me of how David Dewey simplified paintings of ships when I was up in Maine for one of his workshops a few years ago. Never occurred to me to paint just a portion of a ship. It was immediately apparent to him, and it was an immediate success, just like your photos.

    I always love visiting waterfront areas--Seattle comes to mind--it's fascinating to watch what they're all doing.