I spent the first $50 I ever had in the bank on a $49.95 camera. This many years down the track, I can’t recall the brand, but I do remember it used cartridge film and had a leather case, the smell of which sticks with me to this day. Something else that sticks with me to this day is my love of taking pictures. I have thousands of prints and slides stuffed in plastic bins awaiting that elusive moment when I sit down and organize them. Of course, “moment” means more like six months straight, day and night, which likely won’t happen. Ever. Then there’s the digital trove, which, according to the counter in my iPhoto application, is approaching 30,000.
I remember having spirited discussions many moons ago with the late sailing writer and editor Marty Luray, who felt that a camera lens got in the way of his full appreciation of the place or event he was covering. My position then and now is the exact opposite. Photography only connects me deeper with the environment I’m in and the experiences I’m having. Training a lens on a face or one element of a tableau or a whole scene at a single moment in history in a given light adds a level of involvement and focus (sorry) I could never achieve just sitting on the beach or the foredeck scanning with my humble eyeballs alone. Composing a shot, digging deep for Fibonacci balance, and pulling the trigger when it all feels perfect is, frankly, a thrill. It puts me more in the place—more in the moment. Sorry, Marty.
Photography produces tangible, personal souvenirs of the people and places I encounter, whether traveling or capturing a family moment at home. My hopelessly disorganized photo library contains the visual record of my own life and the lives of those close to me. Sometimes I grab a box of prints or a few sleeves of slides and am transported back to a moment of magic or a bad choice of shirts. Sometimes I even recall the moment I snapped the picture—what I was thinking at the time I composed the shot. What a marvelous experience.
A friend who knows of my passion for taking pictures recently sent me a 1951 issue of Popular Photography magazine (single-copy price: 35 cents). It contains a feature on the famed sailor, author and yachting journalist Carleton Mitchell, titled “Take Your Camera Sailing.” In it the writer teases out of his conversation with Mitchell “three useful principles to remember when making sailing pictures. First, simplify your camera-handling technique so that you can concentrate on the boats, the action and the water. … Second, don’t try exclusively for perfect sunny afternoon shots of arching spinnakers and racing boats crowding the line at the start of a race. … Third, and very important, ask questions if you are not a sailor.”
The article is dated and full of practical advice on lenses, filters and film you can only buy in a pawn shop now, but it comes from the point of view of a guy who sides with me on the issue of recording boating experiences in words and pictures and who likely amassed a much larger photo library in his lifetime than I have or will.
Mitchell is part of a grand tradition of yachting photographers, the likes of which include names such as Rosenfeld, Levick and Beken. Their legacy lives on today in a small group of professional photographers who seek and find beauty in boats, the sea and the coastlines of the world. They do for a living what many of us just do as a hobby. Like Mitchell, they have much to offer us amateurs.
Among the best of the contemporary breed is Onne van der Wal. I’ve known Onne for several decades and have had the pleasure of working with him on assignment. Like many of his peers, he expanded his range beyond sail racing. His work now covers a broad spectrum including commercial, cruising, classics and coastal geography. His collection of stock and fine-art photography contains more than a million images. Unlike me, he has a staff to manage it all. Under his direction, his assistant was able to cull some choice shots for our piece. I have no doubt you’ll enjoy the tour of some of his favorite stopovers. Maybe his work will inspire you to break out your Canon, Nikon, Sony or iPhone—or your $50 relic with the cartridge film—and record your adventures on the water.