Old school fishermen immortalized in snapshots
By Doreen Leggett
An old fisherman stands by the trap dock in Stage Harbor, looking to the heavens, hat in one hand, mooring chain in the other.
“He was Romanian, had been a priest and was in his 90s,” said Jamie Bassett looking at the black-and-white image of a bearded man, Martin, in oilskins. “He collected cans and went shellfishing.
“The chains hearkened to a hard life. The chains were a metaphor. It was artistic I thought,” said Bassett with a chuckle at his younger self.
Bassett, now known for his fishery startups Chatham Kelp and Shellfish Broker, was an aspiring photographer a quarter of a century ago.
Born and raised in Chatham by his grandparents, working on the water, he had a talent for taking pictures. He had traveled around the world taking photos and when he was around 26 started to work for a “super successful” advertising and fine art photographer, Harry De Zitter.
“He really taught me the ropes for everything,” Bassett said.
He was back on the Cape a lot and one day it occurred to Bassett he should do a portrait series of fishermen, in black and white, from young to old.
“I had hoped it would tell the tale of a fisherman’s life,” Bassett said.
Prints of the 10-photograph series were donated to the fledgling Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance who auctioned them off, but kept a set. They have moved with the organization a number of times and now hang around the conference table at the non profit's offices in Captain Harding House.
Bassett visited and looked at the first photo in the series.
“The youngest guy is Paul Avellar,” Bassett said, nodding to a man in a white sweatshirt in front of a trap boat. “He was a remarkable fisherman.”
Avellar is now the president of Chatham Boat Company, and like all those pictured was supportive of Bassett’s work and gave freely of their time.
A baby-faced young man with a five-o’clock shadow, Jim Amsler, is the second youngest in the series.
“He was one of the most educated clammers. Very well read, totally out of place,” said Bassett.
Amsler revolutionized shellfishing, said Bassett; he was the first person on Cape Cod to use a Carolina Skiff.
“He had brought it from down south. Everybody’s freakin’ jaws dropped. They saw how little water he needed to get where he wanted to go,” Bassett said.
Bassett said he gave minimal direction to the fishermen, just snapped away on his 645 Fuji Neopane using 400 speed black and white film. No cropping, the composition was all done through the lens and then he printed them himself.
Bruce Julin, a cod fisherman, is next in the series, in the “prime” of his life.
Next up was Ed Eldredge, a shaggy-haired bass fisherman and a “super nice guy,” born and raised here, said Bassett.
“He was a great fisherman,” he said.
Next up was another great, well-known fisherman, Ralph Nickerson in a white tank top and jeans, looking Marlon Brando-esque.
“When I didn’t have a trailer for my boat he would launch it for me and he never wanted to charge me,” Bassett remembered.
Then a head and shoulders close-up of Don St Pierre, leaning against a weathered shanty.
“This is the autumn of his fishing life,” said Bassett.
As fishermen age, Bassett said they turn to quahogging.
“Martin couldn’t work on a fishing boat, but he could slowly scratch,” Bassett said, adding that four of the oldest portraits were quahog scratching at that time.
Ed Jepsom is number seven. His son, Chris, still makes gear and is a conch fisherman. “Ed was in the process of teaching me how to fly doves” before he passed away, Bassett remembers. “He would ask how you were and what you were up to and really wanted to know.”
Number 8 is Coot Cahoon, holding a worn quahog rake, made by master welder Ben Buck.
“This rake is the best quahog rake in my opinion,” Bassett said. “That’s years of experience brought to bear.”
The second oldest in the series, Walter Young, stands smoking a cigar, looking at the water.
Although he did other photographer projects, including a series on trap fishing, 9-11 washed most of young photographers out of the business.
So Bassett went back to the water, still with a creative bent as he and partners have launched a sister business to Chatham Kelp, Kelp Zero, designed to sequester carbon for carbon offset credits.
He doesn’t pick up the camera as much as he did. Still, he learned a lot:
“One of the biggest things I found out about these guys is that they could pull six- to eight-hour days in their 90s. They weren’t loafing on the couch.”
To see the series, Portrait of a Fisherman Young to Old, call Doreen at 508 -887 -3224 or stop by the office at 1566 Main Street, Chatham, Ma.