As they were wont to do, friends Christian Johnston and Shamar Hill would go to a pier in Sheepshead Bay and fish. Well, Johnston would fish and Hill would just hang out.
One time out near Floyd Bennett Field, the two saw a man shucking clams for bait. The imagery, thought Johnston, a regular photographer for the New York Post, would make a great portrait. Soon, that idea grew into a project, capturing fishermen – and women – throughout the area fishing.
Hill, a writer, would do the interviews and capture their stories in words, while Johnston would in images.
The result of that project, for which the two both received Brooklyn Arts Council Artists' Awards, is currently on view at Gallery Three in South Oxford Space through September 19.
“Fishermen of Sheepshead Bay” captures simply yet subtly those who regularly come out to Sheepshead Bay’s waters and fish, for whatever their reason.
For Pedro, a recent immigrant from Mexico, it’s to forge a sense of home in his new, unfamiliar one. For Johnny, it gives him time to think of his deceased mother and gain some peace from the calm of the water. For Elicio, it's to just fish and joke with the others on the piers in Coney Island.
“You really get a piece of these people's lives,” says Hill, a Brooklyn native from Kensington now living in Manhattan and at work on first novel, This Burning. “That's what I think is successful about this photography-writing collaboration. A piece of life is documented in a photograph and speaks truths in a different way in the writing.”
To find local fishermen, Johnston, a Sheepshead Bay resident who himself fishes in the area, would go to the piers off of Emmons Avenue, down to Coney Island at Steeplechase Pier, to Breezy Point and to Floyd Bennett Field. When he took the photos, he would give little instruction so to get the most natural pose possible. All those captured wound up looking into the camera with a straight deadpan look.
“It's not a blatant fishing portrait of a guy holding up his catch of the day,” says Johnston. “There are subtle hints of fishing – maybe just part of a fishing rod. It's more about the person. They were proud to be fishermen.”
While Johnston shot, Hill would assist, as well as talk to the fishermen and get their stories.
“People opened their lives up to us,” he remembers. “It was pretty amazing. It speaks to the solitude of fishing – in that moment, you're opening yourself up to a lot of things. You're just there with your thoughts.”
Currently on view at the Fort Greene gallery are the portraits, accompanied by their brief stories, of ten fishermen – and women – total.
“I definitely wanted to get women fishermen,” said Johnston, who has three in the show. He also wanted to include Russian fishermen, given the neighborhood's heavily populated Russian community, but couldn't find any interest.
“I felt I missed a piece by not getting the Russians in there,” admits Johnston.
The ten photos currently on view are only what the gallery could hold; there are triple the portraits and stories that Johnston and Hill have procured, which they hope to show in different galleries, as well as compile into a book. The grand vision of that project has Sheepshead Bay as just one chapter, with others dedicated to fishermen from all across the United States, and even the world, found in places you would least expect to find a hardcore fishing community.
“Something that really spoke to us was that this is New York City,” says Hill. “People are shocked. That's part of the appeal we're looking for if we take it across the country – the unique communities that have something thriving in them that you wouldn't think of.”
For now, the two are focusing on the current show and gauging the response from viewers.
“I hope when someone looks at the photographs, they come up with their own interpretation of the person and feel like they get a sense of that person in the photograph,” says Johnston. “I'm shooting because I find it interesting. I hope other people do, too.”
“Fishermen of Sheepshead Bay” is on display at Gallery Three at the South Oxford Space (138 South Oxford Street, 3rd Floor) now through September 19. For more information, call 718-398-3078.
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