Corey Arnold practically got his sea legs before he could walk. He grew up fishing with his dad in Vista, California, and has now traveled the world over as a commercial fisherman since 1995 and captain of his own salmon fishing boat since 2009. He has seen the waters of Spain, Scotland, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Poland, of and a handful of other countries while serving as official documentarian for the European fishery coalition, Ocean 2012, that seeks to promote sustainable fishing practices and policy in the EU. But don't worry, he often gets called to land by magazines like Esquire, Monocle and en Route for everything from Greek chef highlights to Francis Ford Coppola portraits.
A storyteller above all, Corey Arnold's newly bound body of work, Fish-Work: The Bering Sea (Nazraeli Press), bears the heart and soul of Alaskan crab fisherman as told by one who suffered the hellish and joyous livelihood himself. Fish-Work is also title to his current show hanging in hand-crafted walnut frames at San Francisco's Fecal Face Dot Gallery through February 26th, 2011. Last week, I was fortunate enough to steal Corey away to share breakfast and stories like his boyhood trip overboard or more recent frosbitten thumb in an Eskimo dog-mushing village. Even after traveling seven months out of the year, Corey's eyes are bright as he explains that he will never stop fishing. So let's hear why. - Kirsten Incorvaia.
Lesser Spotted Dogfish
Kirsten: Crab fishing never got much attention before the Discovery Channel series, Deadliest Catch, launched in 2004. Did that exposure of the Alaskan fishing industry help launch your photography career?
Corey Arnold: It partially did, though the first galleries that contacted me had never heard of the show. I started photographing this crab series in 2002 so I was a little bummed when suddenly, two years later, all these camera crews showed up in the town to start filming the show. I was thinking, man I’ve been working on this long-term serious photo project while on the boat as a fisherman... so I was a little disappointed that they were gonna get it out there first. But thankfully it didn’t really work that way.
Do you want to move out of fishing and full time into photography?
No, I always want to do both. Ill probably do it my whole life because it’s such a big adventure, like summer camp. Two years ago, I bought a boat and permit in Alaska so I have my own operation now. We live in this community in a remote part of Alaska with 150 fisherman and we’re having barbecues and natives are teaching us how to smoke salmon and there’s bears everywhere. It’s a crazy place. I definitely love that. I have to keep fishing.
Does the rest of the crew get fed up with you taking breaks to shoot photos in the middle of fishing?
I was crabbing three months out of the year for seven years. That’s a lot of time out there and it’s not like I’m shooting every day, I wait for the weather to be ideal. I can only shoot so much before the rest of the crew is like, come on! But they knew it wasn’t a hobby and I was serious about making a photo book. I always said I would give them prints... I owe them tons of prints!
How do you keep your gear dry?
You get so few breaks that there are only a few minutes to shoot. Also keeping the camera clean is a challenge because the air’s salt-water spray is all over. I always have two cameras on my bunk wrapped in duct tape and Ziplocs ready to go. When I was shooting film all the time I would run out, shoot a roll, take the bag apart, change the film, shoot a roll and throw it on the bunk. In between strings I’d run in and change the film again so they’d be ready to fire off.
What other commercial photography do you shoot outside of fishing?
I’ve gotten a reputation for adventure photography... a travel magazine called en Route in Montréal just sent me to Greece for 10 days shooting this chef that has really nice Greek restaurants around the world. I went out with the fisherman who catches for his restaurant; with the people who harvest sea salt and caviar; and even to the local winery. It was my dream job.
I also just got back from two and a half weeks in Alaska shooting for a big UK magazine called Monocle. I was doing a profile on Port of Dutch Harbor and everything not about fishing there: the town and the people. After that, in the middle of winter, I went to an Eskimo village in the arctic for a story about the arctic food band. I ate tons of seal meat, whale blubber, and hunted rabbits. I frostbit my thumb when we went dog mushing on the ice - it’s minus 20 degrees so you have to have every inch of skin covered.
Do you also shoot portraits once in awhile?
I photographed Francis Ford Coppola for Esquire at his winery in Napa. That was the most high profile person I’ve photographed. I think its cool when magazines take risks by hiring photographers who don’t normally shoot that type of work.
How did you get into photography in the first place? Were you always running around with a camera or did it come later in life?
My dad was always taking pictures of us on our fishing trips and he bought me a simple Pentax when I was 11 or something. Ever since I could walk, I’d go out on the ocean every week on my dad’s fishing boat. I have pictures of me holding fish from trips throughout my whole life.
So fishing and photography have always gone hand in hand for you.
I always thought photography was a nerdy thing. My family was not an artsy family; I lived in a fairly conservative suburb in Vista, California. I didn’t understand photography as an art form; I never thought it was creative.
So how did you start to see photography as an artistic process?
I had a friend who went to the Academy of Art and they reported back that it was really amazing, so I moved out to San Francisco to go to photography school. I had no art education or training, I didn’t know anything. It helped me unlearn what I had been taught by lousy teachers that just taught the structure. I had to learn to strip all the rules out of photography.
You’re lucky. Most schools don’t even have dark rooms anymore.
Yeah, the biggest problem in photography is that kids are coming out of art school thinking they can make color photocopies of their prints and the quality looks like shit quite often. Merging the ideas and craft is really what it’s about for me. That’s my shtick. When it all comes together that’s the perfect photo.
It’s important to be aware of the craft involved in film even when shooting digital.
I agree. I’ve always been really hesitant about digital, especially when making prints for galleries. But now that I've been experimenting more and more, I'm really happy with my digital prints - sometimes even more than film. That said, I would still like to go do a whole 8x10 project. There’s nothing like seeing giant prints from an 8x10 negative. Nothing compares to that.
You have a nice mix of digital and film in your current show at Fecal Face Dot Gallery. How does the quality of the prints compare?
The detail of digital is sharper so they blow up much sharper. Bering Sea Birthday is shot with film and you can see it’s grainy. But I like it grainy, grain is a good thing. It has a nice atmosphere.
Will you keep shooting film?
It’s always cooler to say you shot it in film. But what I can say, man. Digital is working out. I can finally say digital is right up there with film.
What cameras are you using?
The Canon 1D Mark III is top of the line and it has great weather seals. I have the 5d also, and I switch between 50m 1.2 and 35m 1.4 lenses. When I shoot film, I use my Pentax 67 or Mamiya 7 with Kodak Portra NC Film.
Why did you switch from crabbing to salmon fishing up in Alaska?
Salmon fishing is way more fun. Also, I run the business so I get to make the strategic choices. When I’m on the crab boat, it’s grunt manual laborer and I have no say in where we go. Owning my own boat and running the show is so much more fun, it’s like summer camp. Salmon fishing can actually be harder work than crabbing but it’s not nearly as dangerous and loud. The crab boat has engines and hydraulics roaring, pots crashing. When you’re salmon fishing you’re hand-pulling nets, motors off. It’s more peaceful. We take breaks smoking hand rolled cigarettes. Chilling.
Have you had any close calls salmon fishing?
When I first started salmon fishing we overloaded our boat in a storm and went down. We were getting swept out to sea, it was bad. We had no life jackets on board. We somehow managed to throw the fish overboard and get back up.
Have you ever been overboard?
I got swept overboard when I was eight years old in Oceanside Harbor. There were 10-foot seas and breaking waves, so I got knocked overboard the boat. My dad tried to rescue me and then he got knocked overboard too. I was swimming for the rocks and about to get smashed against the jetty. This dude on a big wave gun plucked me up, slapped me on his board and started paddling. One rescued our boater and one rescued my dad. That was pretty crazy. That was my near death experience.
How does it feel to be away from land for weeks at a time, only looking out and seeing the ocean?
The crossing from Seattle to the fishing grounds is eight days. You don’t see land the whole time and sometimes you don’t even see another boat. If you get stuck in a storm out there it’s bad - there’s no escape. We’re always really careful, watching the weather. My captain claims to have been in storms up to 100-foot waves before, out of control.
What are some of the stories you’ve heard from other fisherman?
I’ve met a guy in Seattle that quit crab fishing because he was in one of the biggest boats: a 150 foot crab boat that was 35 foot tall off the water to the windows. While he was driving, he had a wave that hit him so hard it went through all the windows, ripped the roof off, picked him up and somehow catapulted him fifty feet down onto the back deck. He survived and didn’t break anything. A total miracle.
Can the ocean also be therapeutic and calming?
Yeah, when it’s a nice day and you chill out on the back deck. The bummer thing is that it’s usually so cold and windy and brutal that you mostly sit inside and stare out the window. Sometimes I’ll get in all rain gear and lay on top of the pots and just watch the ocean for a while. I like that period where you can write and think.
Is there any down time while you’re on the boat?
There’s down time waiting for storms to settle so we can get out of the harbor or waiting to offload our crab. I like the waiting and I hate the waiting at the same time. I like the fishing part better, but it’s almost like there’s more waiting than fishing sometimes.
Deadliest Catch hardly shows any waiting. Everything's about how many ways crabbing can kill a man.
They could have done the show so much better if they made it more real. They probably wouldn’t get the ratings, but somehow it would be more admirable.
Is it true you go forty hours without sleeping at a time?
My first two years crabbing were on the derby system so it’s “catch all you can while you can.” We worked around the clock, sometimes 36 hours straight. By the end you’re delirious and everyone’s going through these mood swings where someone’s barely moving and someone else is having his 5th rush of the day. You start arguing and getting crazy. The captain comes on and starts losing his temper - I never even knew I had a temper until not sleeping for that long. You start to get crazy.
It’s hard to believe one can push their body that hard. What if you get sick on the boat?
When you’re crabbing you get sick a lot because there are a lot of people from other countries coming to work in the fish factories and they bring all these weird viruses. So many times, the first day of the season I’ve had a fever with dizzy spells. I’ve also had crazy tendinitis where my arm swelled so high that my hand could barely make a fist. You can’t stop working for it to get better so you just keep going. You would think your body can’t repair itself in those situations but it does. That’s something I didn’t know was possible... you learn a lot about yourself fishing.
It's like fishing brings out some superhuman strength in you.
It’s like running a marathon. It seems impossible and it’s kinda your worst nightmare, like a mental training of self-inflicted pain. It makes everything in normal life seem a lot easier after torturing yourself like that. But afterward, there’s a feeling of accomplishment that you can conquer so much. That’s one of the greatest things about fishing.
Corey with his installation at FFDG
More light stalking at http://coreyfishes.com