August 4, 2022

What do photography and fishing have in common? Tales from a mill pond.

With time to spare before collaborating with photography teacher Jess Lazarus at Pembroke (Mass.) High School, I discovered a herring fish ladder at nearby Glover Mill Pond.  I packed a plastic Holga camera loaded with a fresh 12 exposure roll of film. (Click to learn about this camera.)  

I set out to tell the story of the fish ladder with the enabling constraint of only 12 shots.  Like a baseball pitcher waving off a proposed pitch from their catcher with a slight head shake, I moved on without pressing the shutter button when what I saw through my viewfinder did not measure up.

12 Images - The One Repeated View Was to Refine the Plane of Focus

Knowing I would soon be in a classroom of eager students prompted me to be mindful of my creative process and decision making.  What wisdom could I distill from this documentary experience to effectively teach about storytelling, framing, lighting and exposure choices?

Fish Ladder is at the Upper Right Rule of Thirds Crash Point

Herring are born in rivers, travel downstream, and then live in the ocean before returning to their birthplaces to spawn.  River dams built for industrial purposes, such as creating water power for 19th century mills, obstruct the upstream progress of the fish.  Fish ladders are thus built to facilitate the passage of herring up and over the dams.  

Imagine Swimming Up this Fish Ladder 

The day before this exploration I met with legendary photographer Lou Jones.  I knew him from the 1990's Boston commercial photo scene.  We reconnected a few years ago as he mentored a few of my students.  Subsequently, from my viewpoint, he has slid into the mentor seat for me.

"I feel like I keep taking the same picture over and over," I said to Lou, describing a creative photographic rut.

Protecting the Herring

Lou replied that while when you look through the viewfinder there are thousands of considerations in terms of camera settings, exposure, light, etc., and over time you can refine the speed with which you make these split second decisions.  However, none of that matters unless you have access to interesting subject matter.  (Lately Lou has been photographing in Kenya for his panAfricanproject: Redefining the Modern Image of Africa, and capturing IronWorkers walking across girders 53 stories above Boston.)

A Great Blue Heron Flew Across the Sky as I Photographed Gino Fellini

Fueled by Lou's urgings, when I saw this fisherman, I summoned the courage to ask if I could take his picture, thereby gaining access. In my photojournalist days, I went to the Soviet Union on a tourist visa, climbed over fences to photograph Super Fund sites and disobeyed Secret Service agents.  Lately, however, ensconced in the Ivory Tower, I have been timid with approaching strangers, let alone trespassing!

For My Students, Found in Their Syllabi

Gino Fellini, who has been Pembroke's Conservation Chair, explained the ins and outs of the herring restoration program.  Also, as he described his process of recreational fishing, I found parallels to the creative process that I strive to imbue into each cell of each student.

Seeking to deepen the connection, I asked Gino to write an explanation of his fishing process.  He graciously complied via email:

Hi John,

It was a pleasure meeting you. As far as fishing being a “process” I refer to the actions associated with the routine of rigging, tying knots, selecting a rod and reel, a variety of lures to experiment with, artificial or live bait, hook size and style, etc.. The process also includes location, time of day and season, weather and wind conditions, water temperature, water clarity and depth, hook set, retrieval speeds... Every day is different. I’ve had a variety of successes and failures. 

My happiness is not predicated by how many or how large a fish I catch. For example, at the pond where we met, Ive gone weeks without a substantial catch and then boom 10 large mouth bass of average size in an hour! The next day only 2 bass, but the first was over 4.5 lbs, number two was 3.5 lbs. then nothing again for a while. The process is not all about the fish. While fishing I am observing and contemplating the sights and sounds of nature that surrounds me. It has afforded me a myriad of experiences that can be as rewarding as outsmarting and landing a whopper! 

So that’s it. The process in a nutshell. 😎



From Water Power to Solar Power: This "Farm" is About 100 Yards from the Dam
"The process is not all about the fish." Amen, Gino!  Yes, I had a camera and took these images. However, I also connected with another human, enjoyed a brilliant summer's day, learned, reflected, had fun, experimented, took risks, made psychic connections to students and mentors, and delighted in the wonders of nature.

Like fisherman, we photographers also love to tell stories about "the one that got away."

John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program that he created at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at   Instagram: @john.nordell