A day in the life of Alaska fishery photographer Chris Miller

Inside a Watery World

Fishermen pick fish. Pollock gasp for air. A lobster trap rises to the light-filled sea surface like a treasure chest long-hidden.

 

Juneau photographer Chris Miller’s current show, on view through the end of the month at The Rookery Café, is a watery world filled with fish, boats, and the people that make their living from them.

“Fishing is kind of my niche,” Miller said. “There’s not a lot of us out there that do it (photograph fisheries) consistently. Every fishery has its own story.”

With a background in photojournalism, it’s those stories Miller’s interested in telling.

Miller is one of Alaska’s preeminent fishing photographers. He’s hung off the sides of boats in Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. He’s stayed up long hours along with scallop fishermen, walked the pack ice off Nome, and for good measure, he recently completed a project documenting a fishery in France, a body of work that makes up half of his show at The Rookery. (The other half of the photos are from Alaska.)

Local snow enthusiasts are also familiar with his photos of airborne skiers and snowboarders; he spends most of his winter taking photos of backcountry skiing and snowboarding, though he also photographs some winter fisheries.

“(That) kind of connects me back to my roots as a sports photographer, and it’s a great excuse to be outside,” he said. “Those are the two things I gravitate around.”

He bought his first camera at a state surplus auction as a teenager, and though it remained a hobby for a number of years, “I was hooked,” he said.

He began seriously taking photos when he lived with members of Clark University’s baseball team in college, but it was a summer working at a Massachusetts newspaper that most influenced him.

Between his junior and senior year of college, he took photos for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. Among them was an affecting essay about Michael Zlody, a man with Downs Syndrome that Miller worked with a few times a week. The funding of the Mercy Centre, the school the man attended, was threatened.

That photo essay is on his blog, along with others.

“A photo, to me, should reflect a story if possible,” he said.

After graduating with a degree in international relations and studio art with an emphasis on photography, he decided to try and make it as a photojournalist in Alaska. He returned to Juneau and started taking photos during the legislative session for the Associated Press.

After school, he began fishing — and photographing — in Bristol Bay; he’d gotten his start fishing in Taku Inlet after high school. Later, he got support to photograph some fisheries, like Bering Sea trawling and king crab fishing, from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Cameras and salt water aren’t an intuitive mix.

“It (salt water) wants to destroy everything,” he said. “My cameras are constantly in a state of working and not working. I’m trying to keep them dry, keep them clean, keep water off the lens.”

In small boats, he almost always has a climbing harness and ropes, he said. He hangs himself over the side to try and get different angles. The first time he did that was with fishermen longlining for cod in the Bering Sea.

His job isn’t over once he’s taken a photo, though — he spends just as much or more time editing his shots.

“I take three to ten thousand photos in a week-long shoot,” he said. “There’s a lot of deleting. I take a lot of bad photos. That’s the secret.”

Among his other experiences, trawling for pollock in the Bering Sea was “just a neat fishery in terms of the sheer mass and size of it,” he said.

Some of the boats are bigger than 300 feet, have a hundred people working on them, and pull in 80 tons of pollock every three to four hours, he said. Many of them use more than 90 percent of the fish, including using oil from inedible parts of the fish as a source of energy on board.

“These are boats with a hundred people working on board,” he said. “It’s like something out of the Starship Enterprise.”

When he’s out on a boat photographing, his schedule revolves around the crew, he said. He tries to “limit” himself to 12 or 14 hour days, something that didn’t initially come naturally when crews are working around the clock.

For those who want another secret to photographing fisheries: “All fishing is repetitive,” he said. “So I’m usually trying to build a mental list of shots… I can wait until the light is right, and the position of the boat.”

Patience, he said, is key.

“A lot of my work is more documentary-based in some regards, so I don’t necessarily think of it as art,” he said. “It’s kind of more what it’s about for me versus more traditional fine art photography.”

He’s also taken a number of photos of the Taku River, and the Tulsequah (a tributary to the Taku) — notably where acid mine drainage from the Tulsequah Chief, a closed British Columbia mine, enters the river.

“I was trying to help bring to light what was going on upriver,” he said. “I think a lot of people didn’t know about it.”

In the future, he’d like to put together a book on commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, he said. 2016 will be his tenth season in the fishery.

He’d like to portray his experience there, but also “the experience of thousands of other Alaskans and Americans that make a living on those river systems,” he said.

In the long term, he’d like to photograph every fishery in the state.

“It’s as good an excuse as any to explore the state,” he said. “Alaska is so huge and so diverse. There are little niches from Chignik all the way up to the Kuskokwim River.”

Fishing, he said, draws him in in part because of its nature.

“It’s a very honest job,” he said. “These guys are working long, hard hours to not only put food on their family’s table, but they’re feeding the world. (And,) at least in the state of Alaska, we do so in a very sustainable fashion that’s very well managed. That’s a big part of why I enjoy what I do.”

It saddens him to think of the fisheries, and the fish, that once existed in other parts of the world — salmon, for example, swimming up the Thames River in London.

“The sad thing is it’s unique now, but only because we’ve messed it up so many places,” he said.

The need to protect the resource, he said, is something fishermen are “keenly aware of.”

“It’s a big part of what I hope to accomplish with my work,” he said. “To highlight what we have here, and what we’re doing as a state and as a population.”

 

See more of Miller’s photos, and read his blog, at http://www.csmphotos.com/.

 

Contact Capital City Weekly staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

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