Published September 10. 2013 4:00AM
In the 1970s, as a staff photographer for the Cape Cod Times, Milton Moore instinctively developed a core philosophy about his craft - one that he tried to convey to his students when teaching a few years ago at Mitchell College in New London.
"It's important as a photojournalist to capture time and place," he says. "I'd tell them, 'This is YOUR time. You get to shape and define what's happening.' And that becomes a piece of history with the passing of time."
In that spirit, "Working Men, Working Boats," an exhibition of Moore's Times photographs capturing the lives and vocations of fishermen in Chatham and Provincetown, Mass., opens Friday at Mystic Seaport.
As a fishing hobbyist who loves boats, Moore had gotten to know many of the working fishermen on the Cape, particularly in Provincetown and where he lived, in Chatham.
As part of his job, Moore frequently covered events in the then-flourishing fishing industry. Photojournalists are also responsible for daily standalone images or thematic "feature" series — and Moore often chose to focus on the boats and fishermen.
"I was friends with a lot of these guys, and I'd just get on a boat in the morning and go along for the laughs," he says. "I got to know not just the people but their lives and work fairly well."
In the early '80s, Moore moved to New London as managing editor of Soundings. He moved to The Day in 1991, where he's still employed as a news designer. He's also served as The Day's arts editor and continues to write about classical music.
After rediscovering his Cape Cod fishing images in preparation for his class at Mitchell, Moore organized them, wrote applicable essays, and published the work in a book called "Working Men, Working Boats." Those words and photos became the genesis of the Mystic Seaport exhibition.
Last week, Moore answered five questions about the "Working Men, Working Boats" show.
Q. You came up with the idea for this exhibit while teaching at Mitchell College, right?
A. "Right. Four years ago, I was trying to convey to students the special qualities of the mid-20th-century black and white images of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. I'd tried to capture similar qualities when I was at the Times — a realism. If you look at their photographs, the sense of history starts to resonate with you. It's pretty profound.
"I thought of the photographs I'd taken of the fishermen on the Cape. By that point, they existed in print in old folders, but at least I'd saved them. And I had the negatives. I went back and looked at all of them and I had that sense of history. I thought it might work as an exhibition."
Q. Since the images in the show all came from various assignments for the Times, talk about the role of a photo journalist and, in context, this particular work.
A. "The best thing a photojournalist can do is capture the things people don't see. You have the opportunity to make ordinary lives seem pretty special because, let's face it, most of us are sort of ordinary. But in that are special elements.
"In fishing villages, for example, people see the boats come and go every day, but they don't know what happens in between.
"They don't know that there's a lot of rhythm and choreography on a boat and what at first seems very repetitive becomes hypnotic. As an observer, I'd become mesmerized by the flow of it all and how well it all works, then say, well, next time, I'll watch it all again from a different angle. And that's as revelatory, too.
"Another aspect to the fishing lifestyle is that there's very little conversation. The Yankee fisherman is by definition pretty taciturn. If these people wanted to be around people, they wouldn't be in boats out on the ocean. So you're capturing a personality type that most people are not familiar with."
Q. There are also distinct time and provincial elements to these photographs, right?
A. "Absolutely. I was in two places on the Cape, Chatham and Provincetown, and they were two very different fisheries. Chatham fishermen are very solitary. They had a certain post-hippie solitude about them. Instead of a 'get back to the land' approach, though, they went back to the sea.
"Provincetown, on the other hand, had a very broad structure. There were these huge Portuguese families working together, and there was much more of a community vibe."
Q. How did Mystic Seaport come into play as the venue for the exhibition?
A. "Thematically, it works with their mission, obviously. On a more basic level, I just pitched the idea to them. And I did so because, in our area, with the Seaport and the Coast Guard Academy and the sub base, I think it's easy for us to overlook these facilities. Sometimes we don't understand what a global-level, big-time museum the Seaport is.
"The timing was good. Jonathan Shay was converting one of the floors in the Seaport's Stillman Building into an exhibition space. I took three or four large format prints and a copy of the book over and said, 'I don't think there's anything like this out there. See what you think.'
"It's very expensive to produce the prints, and a very time-consuming process. Plus, the negatives were 40-plus years old and had been stored in folders. I was cleaning them with a toothbrush - real monkey work. And they decided to sponsor.
"I felt amazing; it was an affirmation of what I thought of the work. I don't kid myself about why it's important. It's important because of what it says about a time and a place. Any competent photographer could have been on those boats — and a better photographer would have done it better. But the truth is, no one WAS doing it.
"What I've taken from working with the Seaport was something I knew all along but, again, sometimes took for granted. It's an amazing facility. They're so professional and committed."
Q: You mentioned trying to capture history through the lens of a camera. Does that mean you have to wait to see if you're successful?
A. "What you're doing is trying to define a time and a place through your camera and through your point of view. Only over a period of time do you see whether it actually happens, whether you captured the history.
"At Mitchell, I told the students that the joy and importance of what they're doing is tied up in that. 'This is YOUR time and YOUR place. YOU get to shape and define for people down the road who will see the work.'
"Of course, part of the satisfaction is in just doing the job. Looking back, I do think I captured a lot of a Cape Cod fishing industry that doesn't exist anymore. Part of that's luck and part of it is that the world changes and who could know at the time? But, at the same time, it was fun just to do the work."