Image: Boat photo in 'Stationary Voyages' exhibition
Jason Copes  /  Mariners Museum via AP
This image by Jason Copes is one of the photos in the 'Stationary Voyages' exhibition at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va. Twenty photographers explore 18 of the 150 vessels in the museum's collection not as functional objects, but as pieces of art, focusing their lenses on often overlooked details.
updated 6/29/2007 7:07:59 PM ET 2007-06-29T23:07:59

The Mariners’ Museum is known for housing artifacts from the USS Monitor, with a recently opened wing dedicated to that famous Civil War ironclad battle ship.

But its holdings also include more than 150 canoes, kayaks and other small boats from 42 nations that the museum has been collecting since its opening in 1930 to document the many ways people have set sail.

In a new exhibition, 20 photographers explore 18 of those vessels not as functional objects but as pieces of art, focusing their lenses on often overlooked details, using software to digitally place boats against fantastic backdrops and manipulating natural and artificial lighting to create images with dramatic shadows.

“Stationary Voyages: The Boat in Photograph,” on display through Jan. 20, showcases about 90 of the photographers’ works alongside the boats that inspired them. The vessels include a fancy mid-19th-century gondola from Venice, Italy, a 1920s Alaska canoe covered in seal skin, a 1930s sampan from Shanghai, China, and an 8-foot-long, homemade aluminum kayak a refugee couple used to flee Cuba in the 1960s.

N. Lyles Forbes, curator of maritime arts and culture, and Tom Moore, curator of photography, began working on the project about a year ago. They wanted to do an intense inspection of part of the museum’s collection, and many of the boats in the museum’s International Small Craft Center are very photogenic, with interesting lines and curves and decorative details.

They selected about 30 boats that could easily be moved to an exhibition gallery. They then invited 25 Virginia photographers, as well as Jeffrey Dykes, photographer with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., to be part of the exhibition. Forbes and Dykes had previously worked on a book together.

Image: Photographer John Whalen
N. Lyles Forbes  /  Mariners Museum via AP
Photographer John Whalen shoots the decorative hull of a boat for the 'Stationary Voyages' exhibition at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va.
“We asked them to interpret the boats as they were inspired, not to provide just documentary images of the craft,” Forbes said. “This is an art-museum style exhibition, something akin to how we would present paintings or modern sculpture.”

In the end, 20 photographers, including Moore, each picked one or two of the boats to capture.

“We allowed the photographers to take any track, any bent that they wanted to go on,” Forbes said. “Most of them did that to an amazing degree. When you’re looking at the photograph you can read what you want into it, you can create a story of what you think the photographer was looking at, how this boat was used, some element of excitement or danger.”

Many of the photographers used modern tools such as digital cameras and laptops.

Freelance photographer Ron Carnegie reached back in time, using a vintage camera to produce ambrotypes. Under the process, a glass photographic plate is exposed and developed while the plate remains wet. Carnegie even dressed in period clothing when he showed up at the museum to shoot the gondola, built in 1858 during the heyday of ambrotypes.

Image: Decorative hull
John Whalen  /  Mariners Museum via AP
John Whalen's photo of the hull of one of the boats highlighted in the exhibit. Each of the 20 photographers picked one or two boats to capture for 'Stationary Voyages'.
Cece Wheeler turned to video to create an installation around the centerpiece of the exhibition — the kayak that took Laureano Ricoy Iglesias and his wife, Conseulo Rivera Giz, from Cuba to Florida in 1966. The husband, an auto mechanic, built the kayak from secretly hoarded metal scraps and a lawn mower engine.

Three large screens behind the kayak play Wheeler’s 18-minute video evoking the couple’s 68-hour journey. Visitors see water and hear the lapping of the waves and the occasional squeaking of the rudder as night turns to day.

Wheeler, professor of digital arts and filmmaking at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, also incorporated an interview with Consuelo Rivera Giz, now a widow.

Many of the photographers had never worked with boats before, so they approached the subject with some trepidation.

John Whalen, on the other hand, takes pictures of boats — albeit large ones — for a living. As a staff photographer at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard, the nation’s only builder of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, he’s taken many photos of huge, haze-gray ships in various stages of construction.

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For the show, he selected two canoes from the models the curators had offered.

“I really got excited about it, especially because the boats they had chosen, they’ve got a life of their own,” Whalen said. “Sometimes the gray of aircraft carriers and ships is maybe a little too much.”

Whalen had the canoes taken into the museum’s courtyard, where he shot them from various angles. He later used software to add different backgrounds. In one of his photos, a ceremonial canoe from the Solomon Islands resembles a Viking ship, with a perfect reflection appearing in the still water. Another shot of the same canoe focuses on a detail of a carved dog eating a fish. He crawled beneath a Taiwanese tatara and pointed his camera up to photograph a feather finial at one end of the boat.

To give visitors a taste of how all the photographers did their work, the show also features an interactive touch-screen with photos Forbes took of the artists setting up their shots.

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