Once hundreds of trap-fishing companies plied the Rhode Island coast; today only four remain. Photographer Markham Starr spent 40 days documenting a vanishing way of life for the last trap fishermen of Rhode Island.
On the evening of May 20 in Atlanta, Georgia, the City and Regional Magazine Association, which comprises 74 city and regional magazines from across the country, named Markham Starr’s “The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island,” published in Yankee’s July/August 2012 issue, best photo essay of the year. The national competition, coordinated by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, receives comments from more than 80 judges.
Two of Yankee’s photo essays were included among the four finalists. In addition to Markham Starr’s brilliant work, Yankee was also a finalist for “A Feeling for Vermonters” (March/April 2012), featuring Peter Miller’s moving portraits of his Vermont neighbors.
Any award honoring creative work must be subjective, but what cannot be denied is the collective effort that brought this photo essay into our pages. Photo editor Heather Marcus pushed the work of the unknown photographer until it saw print — and she stayed on it for close to a year. Art director Lori Pedrick wove the photos into a compelling narrative on our pages. And Markham Starr trusted us with the work to which he had devoted many months, with no promise of any reward.
Every page of Yankee is the result of everyone’s work and creativity, and for a magazine that lives, in large part, because we visually bring the region to life, being acknowledged this year for doing that better than anyone else in the country is great praise indeed.
The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island
Markham Starr finds uncommon beauty in the raw work of the men and women who spend their lives working the land or going to sea. He’s a soft-spoken, 53-year-old man with red hair and pale-blue eyes, with only a single high-school photography course to his credit, but he has mastered the art of becoming invisible and letting the stories of his subjects shine through his camera lens.
When Starr has finished, after days and weeks of melting into their lives as if he were simply air, he has captured traditional New England workers at a time when the world is changing around them. Among his large-scale subjects have been the last dairy farmers in his hometown of North Stonington, Connecticut; the final days of the last sardine cannery in Maine; the lives of deep-sea trawlermen who fish out of Point Judith, Rhode Island; and, here, the only fishermen remaining in Rhode Island who tend immense floating traps the way their great-grandfathers did. He called the photo exhibition that evolved from that project In History’s Wake: The Last Trap Fishermen of Rhode Island.
“I’m attracted to people who do these things: so skilled, their knowledge so wide and deep,” Starr says. “Knowing how to fish is probably the easiest thing they do. Similar to farmers, they have to know how to fix their own equipment–because they’re the ones to get themselves out of trouble. They are the Yankee heritage.”
Starr’s photos, and the audio recordings he makes of his subjects, stitch generations past to those who carry on. He knows that one day, when the last floating trap is taken ashore, when the men you see on these pages have grown old–for the average age of a trap fisherman is 55–what will be handed down after lifetimes of setting and hauling, of feeding neighbors and strangers, may be only stories and photos. “I see history disappearing,” Starr says. But he doesn’t wring his hands. Instead, he carries his two Nikons, stuffs his pockets with batteries and memory cards, and finds the history happening right now, in front of him.
When he went to sea with the trawlers, Starr suffered dreadful seasickness–but he shot thousands of images. One day in Point Judith, he noticed some traps and the curious-looking longboats, and he had to know more: “With the fishermen, I say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I want to do.’ They take me at my word. They say, ‘Okay, just show up and stay out of the way.’ I stay out of the way. And I know not to stand in stupid places. And I never ask anyone to pose. They’re a great group to work with.”
When Starr’s work is done, he makes a point to take his prints to the fishermen. Proudly displayed on their walls are photos of the boats of their fathers and uncles, and their grandfathers before them, and beside them go the new ones: past and present bonded by sea and fish and work, fastened there by Markham Starr.