The Sea as Portrait

The sea as portrait. Provenance: Max Ekelin.
The Caspian: a sea by any other name.

Over the past several years I’ve developed an interest in producing a collection of portraits about seas and oceans.

I am a bit surprised to find myself so drawn to this project, as I have always preferred mountains to oceans––the endless, impossibly flat horizon has always put me at unease. But while living in Azerbaijan I spent time exploring the Absheron Peninsula, a thin sliver of land that reaches gingerly into the dream-like waters of the Caspian Sea. When I visited the Caspian I was immediately struck by the sea’s personality, by a kind of energy it emits that seeps quietly into one’s awareness. I consider myself a rational man, generally inclined to favor science over spirituality, but over time, near this body of water, I found myself accepting that it possessed what seemed like emotive, if not intelligent, qualities. And this seemed entirely normal, as if these qualities were a fact of life on earth that I simply hadn’t yet encountered. The sea’s effect is hypnotic.

When I spoke about the Caspian with men whose families had fished it for centuries, I understood that I am not alone. They speak of the sea as a living organism, almost as a kind of sentient being, and I have found this relationship to be not unusual among those who spend their lives at sea. Bodies of water this size have their own personalities, and whether these personalities are formed by weather patterns, biological factors, or man’s unquenchable thirst for legend and lore––or something else entirely––they are a subject I want to explore photographically.

My research for this project has converged on two works of literature: Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, about human interaction with a planet covered by a powerful living “sea,” and Patrick O’Brian’s epic 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, a brilliant collection about the adventures of British naval captain Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic Wars. In both works the principle character is not the story’s protagonist, but rather the sea, a powerful and ultimately unknowable body that commands deference from man and ship alike. Interestingly, these works have been adapted into two of my favorite films: Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) and Master and Commander (2003, dir. Peter Weir). Given how influential these films have been on my own aesthetic sensibilities, I sometimes wonder how I didn’t come to this project sooner. As an aside, it is actually Patrick O’Brian’s work, and not books about photography, that I recommend aspiring cinematographers read to better understand the craft.

Why is this project portraiture? Most photographers would consider such a collection a landscape treatment, but to me the project has qualities that I think more closely fit the portrait model. The practice of portraiture seeks to convey emotional states and latent narratives through focused studies of human form (or, more accurately, through studies of how light and shadow interact with human form). From a successful portrait the audience is able to extract what it needs in order to assign personality to the subject, decode the emotional tenor of the scene, and extrapolate latent narrative into something more manifest. But a subject doesn’t have to be human to ascribe it personality, and, whether we realize it or not, we search for personality in images of non-human subjects as well, from architecture to vegetables to African elephants. Or, in my case, seas and oceans. How successfully an artist is able to ignite the viewer’s awareness of these personalities is largely what separates strong photography from all the rest.

Looking forward to seeing what comes from this.

2 thoughts on “The Sea as Portrait

  1. Wow! I am also looking forward to seeing what comes next. Your thought provoking and beautiful writing evokes me and fits my experience of various bodies of water.

    I also feel that way about cathedrals. Some of them seem to have breath and energy, and others seem dead or even malevolent. Those feelings could not, I suspect, be captured by camera, but seas? Yes, I believe you have the ability to do that.

  2. The cathedrals analogy is apt: they do seem to possess clear “personalities,” though I agree this would be difficult to photograph. Thanks for your comment, and the encouragement!

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